Awaiting an elevator in downtown on a recent morning, I heard a woman joke about how a child's lunchbox left at a school bus stop set off a police scramble to determine the little box's unknown contents. "That's something my little guy would do!" said another woman, and nervous laughter burst from both of them.
But even while Mark Anthony Conditt was wreaking havoc with a series of bombs around the city this month, causing fear and devastating pain for families affected, Austin was gritting its teeth and determined to keep its normal routine.
Conditt -- who blew himself up last week, police said -- first struck on March 2, our unofficial Texas Independence Day, when we make much of our independent spirit. The Driskell Hotel still held a whiskey tasting, and the next morning self-styled Texas patriots gathered for a parade, followed by a somber ceremony at the Texas State Cemetery.
Distressingly, as South by Southwest's festivals were drawing their usual
hundreds of thousands of people -- techies, rockers, political figures, television and film producers—from March 9 through March 18, he struck three more times
. Against this grim backdrop, we were determined to keep going and not give in to fear. We held a golf tournament here, two rounds of the NCAA college women's basketball tournament, and a rodeo.
Worries about bombings played incongruously against the events of all kinds that sprawled through our streets—the events that create a joyous, civic sweetness in a city that is traditionally safe and open.
As far as I know, only one SXSW event -- "The Roots and Friends Jam" -- was canceled, and because of a bomb threat. Police arrested
Trevor Weldon Ingram, 26, on a charge of terrorist threat, a 3rd degree felony. Bud Light, sponsor of the event, canceled the event.
Life went on even as details came out about the victims -- but for many an underlying worry began to seep in.
According to police, Conditt's first victim was Anthony Stephan House, 39, killed on March 2 when he lifted a package left on his front porch.
At first, police thought it was a drug deal gone bad. But House was a law-abiding citizen, father of an 8-year-old girl, a construction worker and money manager. And House's death
didn't occur amid the gatherings, so it seemed strange and isolated.
Ten days later Draylen Mason, 17, a talented musician who had been accepted to the University of Texas Butler School of Music (and Oberlin
as well), died
in a bomb blast at his home.
Both victims were black and lived on Austin's east side. Both picked up packages from their front doors. In all, three people, including Conditt, were killed and five injured in explosions that continued until the killer's death. Conditt is believed to be responsible for six bombs all told.
His actions also were responsible for a renewal of racial tension: City police first speculated that House's death may have been related to a drug deal -- with House possibly mistaken for another man. Community leaders have asked: Would the possibility of a drug deal been invoked at all if House were white instead of black? And if the killer had been black instead of white, would the police chief have referred to him as a "challenged young man"?
Austin Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said no motive might ever be found. The killer left a video taking responsibility for all of the bombings. But there were no racist or terrorist rantings, Manley said.
After Mason's killing, 100 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and 400 FBI agents were working on the case, according to US Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security; "the biggest bombing investigation since the Boston bombings," said
McCaul, whose district includes parts of Austin. "We brought an end to what was a nightmare for Austin."
If Conditt didn't daunt this city of nearly 1 million, he did create new concern about that simplest of acts, sending packages through the company's facilities. One package exploded
in a sorting facility in Schertz, injuring a FedEx worker. The other was seized.
Now our city is left to grieve for Anthony House and Draylen Mason, and for the injured. We are shaken and eager to regain ourselves.
We like having FedEx around. We feel the same way about UPS, Amazon and the US Postal Service workers, as people do across the nation. These are the hard-working men and women who bring us the goods we purchase online and elsewhere.
The rumble of delivery trucks is as familiar as the sound of music on our streets. The Austin bomber roughed up that familiar image, even if just for a moment.
But it seems like most of our anxiety is gone. And that's a relief.