The incident at a FedEx facility near San Antonio was the fifth in a series of explosions that investigators believe is probably the work of a serial bomber. Two people have been killed, four others injured, and a city known for its urban cool has been unnerved.
The explosion Tuesday of a package believed to be bound for Austin occurred shortly after midnight at a facility in Schertz, Texas, about 60 miles south of Austin. It was not immediately clear where the package originated, its specific destination or what type of explosive material it contained. Investigators have said components of the previous four devices appeared to be similar, linking the attacks.
“The safety of the employees and the public has been and remains our principal focus,” Schertz Mayor Michael Carpenter said at a briefing with investigators outside the FedEx facility Tuesday.
Schertz Police Chief Michael Hansen said local police, San Antonio police bomb units and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI responded to reports of an explosion at 12:25 a.m. An employee standing near the conveyor was treated and released after later complaining of ringing in her ears, he said.
“We’re confident that neither this facility nor any in the Schertz area was a target” of the bombing, he said.
ATF Acting Special Agent in Charge Frank Ortega said hundreds of federal agents rushed to the scene.
“We have agents from across the country, we have our national response team, we have K9 units here,” Ortega said. “We have been working round the clock — again, the public’s safety is our No. 1 priority and we are trying to find the person or persons responsible.”
A statement from FedEx said a “single package” exploded at the Schertz sorting facility and that the company was not providing any additional information.
A FedEx store in Sunset Valley, about two miles from the site of Sunday’s explosion, was cordoned off by the FBI early Tuesday and would-be customers milled around outside yellow police tape strung across the suburban strip mall, watching investigators in FBI and police jackets circle the building.
Local mother Jessica Wilkinson said she there to celebrate her 37th birthday with her mother and sister at a nearby restaurant. She didn’t notice investigators at first, thinking the police tape had been strung due to repairs.
“We didn’t know this was a crime scene,” she said as they sat outside, near local police cars, “Should we stay here?”
Wilkinson was left concerned — she’s been receiving birthday gifts by mail, and expects more since her husband’s birthday is Wednesday. She also worried about her sons, ages 8 and 4. Some of their classmates were evacuated from their homes following Sunday’s explosion. But she said the attacks have been too random to justify varying her daily routine.
Wilkinson’s mother, Kelly Metzler, 59, said she was reassured by the police presence and trusts the bomber’s seeming brazenness will lead to an arrest.
“He seems to be a bit braver — he’s hitting facilities now with security cameras that might be able to catch him,” she said. “This might be the last bomb — hopefully.”
Judy Faintich, 68, showed up at the FedEx store hoping to drop off a package, only to be stopped by the police tape. She had heard about the Schertz explosion, but not the potential connection to the store in her neighborhood.
She was soon joined by Megan Villaloboz, a local mother and pre-kindergarten teacher trying to pick up a package — a replacement computer — during her lunch break. When she saw the police, her face fell. This was her fourth time trying to make the pickup.
After the earlier bombings, Villaloboz, 30, said she became “hypervigilant.” She told her children to stay in the car when they return home and spot packages on the stoop, waiting until she inspects the boxes. She has also tried to order less online, to limit deliveries.
“Now with it coming through FedEx, I doubt I’ll order online,” Villaloboz said.
She said she understood why investigators were waiting to release specifics about the devices until they catch a suspect. The influx of federal investigators also reassured her.
“They called in all those people, so I don’t think they’re doing a bad job, I just won’t feel safe until they catch the guy,” she said.
Sunset Valley Police Lt. Rich Andreucci said the FBI contacted his office at 6:15 a.m. about securing the FedEx store.
“The FBI believes the package in Schertz may have originated at this location,” he said as he stood outside the police tape Tuesday.
A FedEx spokesman said, “the individual responsible also shipped a second package that has now been secured and turned over to law enforcement.”
The company also turned over to law enforcement “extensive evidence related to these packages and the individual who shipped them collected from our advanced technology security systems,” Jim McCluskey said in a statement Tuesday.
There were conflicting reports on how many suspicious packages surfaced on Tuesday.
Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton said there were two suspicious packages at the Schertz facility, but that only one had exploded. That package, Paxton said, was shipped from Austin to a different address in Austin. Paxton couldn’t say where the package originated or where it was headed.
But San Antonio Police Chief McManus, who initially said that two packages possibly containing bombs were detected at the Schertz facility, backtracked late Tuesday, saying through spokesman Carlos Roberto Ortiz that a second package was not discovered there.
“There may have been a second package, but not at the FedEx facility in Schertz,” Ortiz said.
Federal investigators have said the serial bombings are a national priority that have drawn 500 federal agents, support from national forensic labs in Quantico, Va., and the attention of the president.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Tuesday that Trump “mourns for victims of the recent bombings in Austin.”
“We are monitoring the situation, federal authorities are coordinating w/ local officials. We are committed to bringing perpetrators of these heinous acts to justice. There is no apparent nexus to terrorism at this time,” Sanders wrote.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told City Council members at a meeting early Tuesday that he could not confirm whether the package that exploded in Schertz had been mailed from one of several FedEx locations in Austin that authorities are now investigating.
“We will be looking very closely at where that package originated,” he said. “With what just occurred in Schertz, Texas, we’ve now brought in a new element where that device was being handled by a facility.”
“It’s not just limited to packages and boxes — it could be a backpack or bag,” Manley said.
He said investigators have been sending evidence to an ATF lab in Quantico which is reconstructing the devices to determine what type of explosive charges were used.
“I cannot sit here and tell you whether there will be another incident. Based on the information we have, there is no reason to believe there will not,” he said.
Council members praised police and fire officials’ response to the bombings, and offered any assistance needed.
“Godspeed on this. Find out who’s responsible and make it stop,” Mayor Steve Adler said.
Austin police were receiving scores of tips and combing through security camera footage from the scenes of previous explosions. Overnight, they responded to 420 reports of suspicious packages, including one at a FedEx facility south of Austin and another near the airport.
Police who responded to the facility south of Austin in the bedroom community of Sunset Valley released a statement on Facebook saying, “The FBI is currently investigating a confirmed link between packages involved in the Austin bombing investigation and a mail delivery office in Sunset Valley.”
“It appears that the source of the suspect packages was a private package delivery office in Sunset Valley,” the statement said. “At this time there are no known public safety threats.”
Authorities did not say what they were investigating at the FedEx facility at the airport.
Three of the previous explosive devices were hidden in packages delivered to homes in residential neighborhoods, but the fourth, which detonated late Sunday in southwest Austin, injuring two bicyclists, was triggered by a tripwire, showing what the police chief called “a higher level of sophistication.”
Manley said it wasn’t clear whether an individual or group committed the attacks. He has tried to reach out to whoever is responsible, asking for a dialogue to prevent further harm to residents. But hours after the Austin police made a public appeal in the case Sunday, increasing the reward for information to $115,000, the fourth explosion occurred. The motive for the attacks also remains unclear, Manley said.
Investigators had said the attacks might have been motivated by racial bias, since the previous explosions killed two African American men and wounded one of their mothers and a Latina woman.
Anthony Stephan House, a 39-year-old construction worker, was killed March 2. Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old high school student, was killed March 12 in an explosion that injured his mother. Hours later, a third device exploded, injuring 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera.
But Sunday’s explosion injured white men bicycling through a wealthy neighborhood in southwest Austin, miles across town from the previous attacks.
Manley said the two latest victims, identified by a friend and relative as former high school classmates Will Grote, 22, and Colton Mathis, 23, were in stable condition.
Courtesy: Los Angeles Times