Blasts Rock Atlanta Abortion Clinic
By Alan Sverdlik
A pair of explosions shook a suburban Atlanta abortion clinic today, knocking out its windows, littering the parking lot with debris and sending panicked workers from nearby office buildings screaming into the frigid morning air.
At least seven people sustained minor injuries and were being treated at local hospitals.
The first blast, at 9:30 a.m., was triggered by an incendiary device that had been placed either inside the Atlanta North Side Family Planning Services or on its window sill, officials said. The clinic, on the first floor of the three-story Sandy Springs Professional Building, was just opening for business when a deafening roar was heard.
"I just hit the floor," said Latima Blue, a medical assistant. She and the four other clinic employees on duty at the time got out unharmed.
Forty-five minutes later, a second, more powerful bomb went off inside or next to a trash bin at the northwest corner of the building's parking lot.
"My ears felt like they were going to pop out," said Melissa Johnson, who had walked over from her house to see what was going on. "My hands were shaking. Not from fear. From the vibration."
No one was hurt by the initial explosion. But the second one knocked down several law enforcement agents and firefighters who were collecting evidence at the scene, as well as a television cameraman.
A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent suffered whiplash and other neck injuries, said Paul Harris, a physician who treated him at North Side Hospital. A firefighter was in stable condition with abrasions and cuts.
The attack came six days before the 24th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. Ironically, the Feminist Majority, National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood were holding a news conference in Washington to report a slight decline in violence against abortion providers when they received word of the bombings.
"We were horrified and outraged by news of this tragedy, but hardly surprised, since our press conference was called to bring attention to the persistent violence being targeted at abortion clinics nationwide," said Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority president.
The proportion of clinics experiencing severe violence has declined from more than 50 percent in 1995 to 29.5 percent last year, Smeal said of the survey of 312 clinics in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Abortion rights advocates attributed the decline to passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law, which makes it a federal crime to physically block access to clinics, damage their property or interfere with or intimidate their staff or patients.
Over a 22-month period ending in late 1994, two abortion doctors, two clinic staffers and a voluntary escort were killed in antiabortion violence, prompting the formation of a federal task force to investigate such incidents. Since 1982, the BATF has investigated at least 179 incidents of arson and bombings targeting abortion clinics or their providers.
Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, calling the explosions "an appalling statement," immediately sent officers to protect the area's seven other abortion clinics.
In Washington, President Clinton condemned the explosions as "a vile and malevolent act" of terror. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who represents the area, said Americans should join "in condemning any act of violence, especially political violence."
Opponents of abortion also condemned the attack. The National Right to Life Committee called on its supporters to use "peaceful, legal means to bring and end to abortion. No sane pro-life person could be involved in such an act; violence only hurts the cause of the unborn child."
The nondescript white building that houses the North Side facility sits on a quiet side street just off Roswell Road, a major thoroughfare, and I-285. It was not widely known that there was a abortion clinic in the neighborhood.
Several businesses on Roswell Road, including a sandwich shop, liquor store and Mexican restaurant, were evacuated. The blast shattered the windows of another office building about 50 yards away, and reverberated through residential areas within two miles of the clinic.
"It nearly knocked me out of my chair," said Bruce Godley, who lives just over two miles away.
Blue, the clinic worker, said her office had never received threatening phone calls and had not been the target of demonstrations. Their principal service, she said, was family planning and counseling, not abortion.
"We never advertised," she said. "There wasn't even a sign on the door."
Federal authorities convened an outdoor news conference near the bomb site as investigators combed the grounds for clues. The briefing was moved off the clinic property out of concern that there might be another bomb, said U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander.
Alexander said that antiabortion sentiment was a likely motive but he would not rule out domestic terrorism unrelated to abortion. He said it was "very troubling" that "a second device exploded after the first" because it meant that the perpetrators intended to harm law enforcement personnel who would likely be drawn to the scene.
The last antiabortion violence in Atlanta occurred in 1984, when three clinics were firebombed, Alexander said. One target was the same facility that was bombed today, although it was at a different location. City officials and civil rights leaders bemoaned the timing of the attack, which coincided with the beginning celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
"It's particularly tragic for us," Campbell said.
"Vicious," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who spent several hours outside the clinic this afternoon. "Vicious and evil."
Staff writer Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post