The makings of a small miracle began when a young couple parked their aging car near the rear of a women's health clinic in suburban Georgia minutes after a bomb exploded at 9 a.m. Jan.
As the couple fled their Nissan Pulsar, federal agents, local police and rescue officers converged on the crime scene. However, none of them knew that another bomb was ticking just a few feet away, timed and positioned to kill.
The second bomb blew 45 minutes later, hurling dagger-like shrapnel toward investigators and emergency workers.
The blast injured seven people and stunned law enforcement authorities, who had not seen a two-pronged bombing attack like that since the 1960s.
That was not the end of the mayhem, however. About a month later, a bomb went off at a popular gay lounge, the Otherside bar, and four people were injured. Once again, the bomber left a second explosive device behind, and this time, it blew the metal hand off a police robot trying to disarm the weapon.
Among Atlanta's tight-knit law enforcement community, the message was not lost.
"All of a sudden the hypothetical, what we are always training for, has become reality," said John Killorin, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Atlanta field office. "This is an attack on family (police and rescue personnel) and we have to respond."
The second bomb "adds a disturbing twist to the whole situation," said Kent Alexander, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. "It is something that is playing on people's minds."
The two-bomb scenario executed at the bar and the suburban Sandy Springs office complex housing the health clinic, which provides abortion services, has left law enforcement authorities in Atlanta and in Washington pondering whether a serial bomber may be at work. Although the forensic work done thus far is not conclusive, police are concerned that one person or group might be responsible.
Whether it is one bomber or more, authorities say there is little question that law enforcement and rescue personnel are the targets. Closer study of the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, which left oneperson dead and injured some 100 others, suggests a strategy intended to deliberately harm emergency personnel. In that instance, police received a warning call and they responded immediately.
"We don't want to alarm anyone, but we want people to understand that this is very serious, and we are taking it seriously," said FBI Agent Jack Daulton.
Federal, state and local authorities have no hard evidence, but they worry that the bomber or bombers could strike again, and they are working urgently.
During two law enforcement conferences conducted within the past month, bomb experts from the FBI, state police and the Treasury Department's ATF, have trained nearly 2,000 Georgia fire and rescue personnel on how to respond to bombings. More than 200 federal agents and support staff on two task forces are working six and seven days a week to press the three bombing inquiries in the largest investigative effort since a series of murders involving young black children in Atlanta in the early 1980s.
The two task forces, one for the bombing at the park and the other for the last two incidents, are sharing intelligence information, another indication that federal authorities have not ruled out linking the three incidents to one person or group.
One reason the police are so concerned is an anonymous letter they have received claiming responsibility for the last two bombings. Federal officials say the letter, penned by a shaky hand, may not be a hoax. The letter appears to confirm a prevailing theory: that the attacks are being carried out by one or more white extremists who hate the government, abortion providers, gays and minorities.
"The bombings were carried out by units of the Army of God," said the letter, which was dropped off at an Atlanta police office hours after the bombing at the Otherside. "The abortion clinic was the target of the first device. The murder of 3.5-million children will not be tolerated."
The Army of God is a longtime moniker for a loose-knit collection of militants who advocated attacking abortion clinics. The name gained notoriety in the early '80s when the group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of an abortion-provider.
The writer of the letter threatened bystanders at abortion clinics and railed against homosexuals who frequented the Otherside. The writer also said that the secondary bomb placed at Sandy Springs "was aimed at the agents of the so-called federal government, i.e. ATF, FBI, marshals, etc. We declared and will wage total war."
The letter offered a few specifics on the components of the bomb, and told police how they will recognize future attacks. A warning phone call will be placed before the next attack, the letter said, and the bomber would be identified by a five-digit number that will be his future signature of responsibility.
Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell said he is undecided whether it is a serial bomber. "But one bomber, two or three. None of those scenarios change the dynamics for us. Our concern is that some of our people are at risk. We can't be unmindful of the threat."
Agent Killorin agreed: "Either way it ain't good. We've had three bombing incidents in the last nine months and every one of them had the potential for mass murder."