As Austin reels from three package bomb attacks in 10 days, Nelson Linder, president of the region’s NAACP branch, regrets not realizing the first one could be a sign of things to come.
The first two victims, a 39-year-old man and 17-year-old boy, were members of prominent black Austin families. The third was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman helping her 93-year-old mother.
In a mostly white city, is there a connection? Or is it coincidence?
“At this point in time, with two black families that knew each other, we have to keep racial hate in the question,” Linder said. “To be clear, we don’t have evidence that’s the case, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Linder is hitting the radio, social media and his phone contacts list to warn Austin’s African-American community to avoid opening unexpected packages.
“We didn’t do the best we could have to inform our population,” Linder said. “After the first one, a lot of folks just didn’t know, didn’t take it seriously. We need to take these things very seriously.”
The first bomb killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, on March 2, just outside the front door of his home in Northeast Austin. Linder knew House from hiring him to build the NAACP website a decade ago, and knows his stepfather, Freddie Dixon, well.
The second bomb killed high school student Draylen Mason in East Austin on Monday morning. His grandparents are Dr. Norman Mason, a widely known East Austin dentist who is friends with Dixon, and LaVonne Mason, a co-founder of the Austin Area Urban League.
The third bomb, just hours after the one that killed Draylen Mason, hit Esperanza Herrera, 75, at her mother’s home in Southeast Austin. Herrera was taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. She remained in critical condition Tuesday.
Herrera’s neighbor Rosario Batista, 67, teared up as she described the friend who has lived across the street for 33 years. They raised their children together, talking often, and are now onto grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Herrera’s son stopped by late Monday to say that Esperanza was having surgeries, Batista said, and that her mother, Maria Moreno, who heard the bomb, was receiving treatment for trauma.
Now all she can do is pray, Batista said.
Neighbors on edge
Neighbors of House who heard the first explosion said Monday they had begun checking delivery tracking numbers before picking up packages and started locking their doors in their normally quiet neighborhood.
Austin police say they have received 265 calls for suspicious packages since 8 a.m. Monday.
Sheryl Cole, a candidate for state representative and former Austin City Council member, called both the Masons and Dixon old family friends and said she’s been talking about nothing but the bombings since yesterday.
“These are two prominent African-American families who have contributed a lot,” she said. “I would urge the community to lift them up in prayers and condolences.”
Carl Richie, a fraternity brother of both Dixon and Norman Mason and president of the region’s Sigma Pi Phi chapter, said he’s getting many calls from others concerned about safety. He’s gotten calls from public officials to say “mind your p’s and q’s” with regards to potential race-related crimes, he said.
The first two explosions brought to mind the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., he said.
“I had to say to myself, ‘Don’t jump to any conclusions,’” he said. “Then, with the third, just as an individual, I have to go: ‘I need to be more aware of my surroundings.’”
Neighbors of Herrera’s mother, Maria Moreno, on Tuesday described a community in a state of mourning, concern and confusion. The 6700 block of Galindo Street was still cordoned off with police tape and the area was aflutter with men in FBI uniforms interviewing neighbors.
Cristino Herrera (no relation to Esperanza Herrera), who lives near where the second package exploded March 12, was sleeping when sirens woke him up. When the 22-year-old learned from family and news reports what had happened, he was taken aback.
Cristino Herrera added that his brother went to school with Draylen Mason, making two of the bombs feel close to home.
“I’m worried that it’s in my neighborhood, that it’s my community, and I’m worried that … it could happen to somebody I know personally,” he said. “Right now, we’re just being extra cautious.”
He called the neighborhood close-knit. His grandmother, Susana Almanza, a former City Council candidate and director of local nonprofit PODER, has been busy keeping up with calls.
“We’re keeping each other close,” Cristino Herrera said. “We’re holding on, making each other feel safe.”
Terri Zambrano was cooking lunch for her grandchildren when they heard a boom that shook the windows. At first, she thought their water heater had exploded. Then came the sirens.
Zambrano, 51, who’s lived in the home since the 1960s, said she was shocked when she heard on the news what happened.
“It feels kind of scary,” Zambrano said. “My mom’s here; she’s 76 years old. It could have been us. It could have been any of us.”
Since the bombing, Zambrano has had her daughter call to alert her that a package of birthday treats would be delivered, so not to be alarmed. She’s told authorities that, no, she didn’t see anything and doesn’t have security cameras.
Nearby Luiz Deniz, 18, thought the boom must have been an electrical transformer failing and didn’t pay attention until the street was crowded with police. Since then, everyone has been on edge.
“It had an impact,” Deniz said. “It’s scary knowing people are going around dropping bombs.”
Oliver Burns, 34, who is visiting from Canada to have surgery here, was staying with family and a friend in an Airbnb rental near Galindo Street.
His family fretted about crime in Southeast Austin, but, after arriving, he assured them the area was quiet. Just hours later, he heard news of the bombing while at the hospital.
“I was like, ‘See, mom, I told you, it’s just a neighborhood. I like that there’s little kids riding their bicycles around, there’s dogs in the streets,’” Burns said. “And then a bomb down the road, there you go.”