A fourth explosion in Austin, Texas injured two people on Sunday night, sparking fears of an ongoing and increasingly erratic, deadly trend in the city.
At around 8:32 p.m., two unidentified men in their 20s were walking their bicycles on the 4800 block of Dawn Song Drive in the Travis County neighborhood when they appeared to trigger an explosive device. Police answered a call to the area but were unable to deduce clear details due to the evening darkness. The explosion is the fourth such incident of its kind in a month.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told reporters his department is operating under the assumption that the latest explosion is connected to three package bombings earlier in March. Manley also said that his department believes that the explosion may have been caused by a package on the side of the road, triggered by tripwire and activated as the pedestrians passed.
“It is very possible that this device was activated by someone either handling, kicking or coming in contact with a tripwire that activated the device,” Manley said.
That marks a shift from the other incidents. Package bombs left at houses in East Austin killed two people — 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House and 17-year-old Draylen Mason — and injured two others. Police are currently investigating those bombings as a potential hate crime: those targeted were all Black or Latinx and the two people were killed came from prominent Black families who knew each other.
The latest incident, by contrast, took place in another part of the city and police believe the attack was a random one meant to impact anyone passing by. Both victims reportedly have severe injuries but are in “good condition” and expected to make a full recovery. They are both white, unlike previous victims.
The explosion on Sunday came only a few hours after officials made a public appeal, asking the parties behind the original three package bombings to come forward. The bombings so far have been “sophisticated” and show a level of knowledge, according to police.
“We believe that the recent explosive incidents that have occurred in the city of Austin were meant to send a message,” said Manley earlier that day. “The person or persons understands what that message is and are responsible for constructing or delivering the devices and we hope this person or persons is watching and will reach out to us before anyone else is injured or anyone else is killed out of this event.”
Following Sunday’s explosion, residents of the Travis County neighborhood have been told to stay indoors until 10 a.m. The Austin Independent School District (AISD) said it would not send school buses near the area, and wrote on Facebook that any absences or tardiness would be excused accordingly.
“Due to police activity, we will not be able to send school buses into the neighborhood on Monday, March 19. Any tardies or absences due to this situation will be excused,” an account for the district wrote in English and Spanish. “Please take caution and follow instructions from the Austin Police Department. Stay in place until you receive further direction from APD. If you see anything suspicious do not approach it or touch it and call 9-1-1.”
The office of Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has offered $15,000 for information leading to the arrest of the parties behind the bombings; the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have offered $100,000. While little is known about Sunday night’s explosion, communities of color in Austin have expressed concern that they are being targeted in the deeply segregated city. Latinx residents make up almost 35 percent of the city, which is majority non-white. Black residents represent around 8 percent.
“We are just not going to ignore that fact that the three victims that were targeted…were all people of color,” Manley said last week, prior to the latest explosion. “We cannot ignore that. That is something we have to pay attention to. That does not indicate that it’s a hate crime. But we’re not going to rule that out because we don’t want to limit anything that we’re considering.”
More than 500 federal agents are currently assisting with the case and Austin police have warned the investigation could be drawn out and lengthy. Officials have also said they are interested in national leads and tips from across the United States. “The scope goes beyond just Austin,” an unnamed official told the New York Times. “We’re looking for anyone that could have been involved in making bombs in the past in Texas, and really anywhere in the United States.”
UPDATE: Police told reporters on Monday morning that the city is dealing with a “serial bomber” and that the attack shows an increasing level of randomness, as well as “a higher level of sophistication, a higher level of skill.”
“What we have seen here is a significant change from what appeared to be three targeted attacks to an attack that could have harmed anyone,” Police Chief Manley said.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that the city is experiencing anxiety and that concerns are “legitimate and real” following the fourth explosion.
“That anxiousness is going to continue until we can find the answer,” Adler said.
Campus police at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the largest universities in the country, are advising students “look out for one another” despite the distance between the bombings and the school’s sprawling campus.
This story has been updated to indicate comments from the press conference Monday morning, as well as the racial identities of the latest victims.