by Paul Kingsbury
On May 5, 1982, at 4:03 p.m., a call came in to Vanderbilt Security reporting the sound of a gunshot. One minute later, a second call came in, from an engineering professor: a small bomb had exploded in Room 255 in Jacobs Hall, injuring a secretary. In 10 minutes Vanderbilt Security officers were on the scene, followed closely by a Metro ambulance and Metro police.
In the days that followed, a story was pieced together that made national headlines. The secretary, 39-year-old Janet Smith, had opened a small, wooden, cigar-box-shaped package, addressed to her boss, computer science department chair Patrick C. Fischer. Its explosion lacerated her arms and chest, and left powder burns on her face. The only thing out of the ordinary about the package was that it had been forwarded from Fischer's former place of employment, Pennsylvania State University, which he had left two years before.
The Vanderbilt postman who delivered the package, William Ross, doesn't remember anything about the package_only his thoughts upon hearing about the explosion: "Oh man! That's my route! I had no idea I was delivering a bomb, but then you never know when you're delivering a package. I was relieved that no one was killed."
Fischer himself was out of town at the time of the blast, lecturing at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. "I first learned about it when I returned to the hotel that day," Fischer said, recalling the incident. "There was a message on the hotel phone. I ended up talking to postal inspectors for the most of the night."
At the time, Fischer didn't know any more than the authorities did, though he suspected that the person who had sent the bomb didn't know him personally. In the ensuing years, a pattern emerged as 3 people were killed and 23 injured in letter bombings that occurred between 1978 and 1995. Most of the victims were business people or university scientists.
Not until 1996 would it be revealed that the Vanderbilt bomb had been sent by Theodore J. Kaczynski, the deranged mathematician known as the Unabomber, who railed against the forces of technology in a 35,000-word manifesto published in the New York Times and Washington Post in September 1995.
With Kaczynski's Jan. 22 guilty plea in Sacramento, this sad, strange chapter in Vanderbilt's own history is finally coming to a close.
"I'm very satisfied with the plea bargain," said Fischer. "I think that the most important thing has happened, and that's that he's behind bars now, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole. It's still an open question as to what his motives truly were, and we may never know unless his diaries become public. . . . I don't think he knew any of his victims."
Of Janet Smith, Fischer reports: "She's fine now. She's remarried, retired and has had a full physical recovery. The last time I talked to her was roughly the time of Kaczynski's arrest. . . . I'm quite sure she feels very comfortable that he's locked away."
Since the 1982 bombing, the only such incident in Vanderbilt history and Nashville's first since 1960, Vanderbilt has stepped up security measures to deal with future threats.
"Our officers have all been trained, with 40 hours of in-service work each year, on how to deal with potential bombs," said Assistant Director of Security Ben Rector. "If a suspicious package or possible bomb is discovered, we send an officer over to assess the situation. We make determinations visually. Then if we think there might be a problem, we ask that the area be cleared, and we call the Metro bomb squad."
"It's made all of us more cautious when we encounter suspicious packages," said Brenda Gilmore, director of mail services, whose staff handles an average of 600 packages and 45,000 pieces of mail daily. She points out that through training campus postal staff are now made well aware of the guidelines for spotting suspicious packages.
Gilmore says her staff looks for packages that are untidy or lumpy, that are addressed in large, bold or childlike writing, that have strings or wires attached, that have excessive postage or a return address for a fictitious town.
Rector urges anyone encountering a suspicious package on campus to call Vanderbilt Security's emergency hotline: 321-1911. "We would rather answer a hundred false alarms than miss one bomb that's real."
Fischer, who opens his own mail now, approaches any package with caution. "I make sure that any package checks out. My advice is, any package that is a surprise, that is unsolicited, should be viewed with some suspicion."