A small homemade bomb rocked an abortion clinic here early Thursday, killing a Birmingham police officer who moonlighted as the clinic’s security guard and severely injuring a nurse.
The nation’s first fatal bombing of an abortion clinic left a hole in the ground outside the New Woman All Women Health Clinic and shook buildings for blocks. Students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham were awakened by the blast around 7:30. Many said the sound was sickening - and instantly recognizable.
“It sounded like a big piece of sheet metal fell on the roof,” said Alan Tanner, a freshman. “Soon as it happened, everyone was, like, ‘The abortion clinic’s been bombed.”’
Police evacuated dormitories and businesses within a mile of the scene, then sent in dogs to search for a second device. None was found, despite a persistent rumor throughout the day that a larger bomb was planted to kill arriving rescue workers and law enforcement officials.
It was almost one year ago that two bombs hit an Atlanta abortion clinic, the second injuring seven people. And it was last week that a protest rally wended through downtown Birmingham, past the New Woman clinic, marking the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
But James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms here, said it was premature to connect the Birmingham and Atlanta attacks.
He also refused to comment on any components used to make the bomb, or possible suspects in the case, only saying that an “improvised” explosive device was used.
While more than 100 investigators and top bomb experts combed the area for clues, President Clinton called the bombing “an unforgivable act that strikes at the heart of constitutional freedoms and individual liberties all Americans hold dear.”
Gov. Forrest “Fob” James Jr., a Republican who opposes abortion, said the bombing was “an act of cold-blooded murder, and murderers need to be tracked down, indicted, convicted and executed.”
Standing not far from where the bomb went off, David Lackey, director of Alabama’s chapter of Operation Rescue, said the New Woman clinic has been the target of anti-abortion protests for years. In fact, it’s one of four Alabama clinics fighting a ban on late-term abortions.
Every day, Lackey said, at least one Operation Rescue protester has been stationed outside the clinic, and every Saturday nearly two dozen protesters are there.
Still, Lackey condemned the bombing, adding that Operation Rescue requires a pledge of nonviolence from each member.
“We’re pro-life,” he insisted. “We’re pro-life for the employees, as well as the babies and mothers.”
The injured nurse, 41-year-old Emily Lyons, apparently was opening the clinic doors when the bomb exploded. She was taken to University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital, where doctors were able to save her badly damaged legs, but not her left eye.
Robert Sanderson was just arriving at the clinic from his overnight shift as a police officer.
At a drugstore around the corner from the clinic, employees were especially devastated by his death, because they had known him for years. He worked there as a security guard until six months ago, when new owners decided they couldn’t afford his services.
Donna Abney, manager of the store, said she saw Sanderson only hours before he died. He’d stopped by to see if his W-2 forms had come; he was eager for an income tax refund.
She took the opportunity to tease him about his dire need of a shave.
“It was really strange the way we all got to see him yesterday,” she said. “He was a good guy. A good worker.”
Everyone liked him, she recalled, smiling, “except the people he busted.”
Abney said Sanderson had a wife and a young adopted son - the family for whom he often held down three jobs.