Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

Death in the Ruins

Carol Denise McNair, victim
Carol Denise McNair, victim

Within minutes, the first of the dead girls was pulled from the rubble of the basement. It was Denise McNair. In succession, the bodies of the other victims were removed. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson were dead, their Sunday dresses shredded into bloody rags, their bodies horribly mangled. "They were all found almost within the same location," Reverend Cross said later, "as if they had been thrown on top of each other." A fifth girl, Sarah Collins, who was Addie Mae's older sister, was dug out from under large slabs of concrete and stone. "I didn't know what happened," she later told police, "I was calling for Addie because I thought she and the others had run out of there!" Sarah had 21 pieces of glass embedded in her face. Though badly injured, she survived.

Cynthia Wesley, victim
Cynthia Wesley, victim

Hundreds converged on the church. "People were running all over the street!" one witness told the press, "screaming, hollering and throwing rocks at the police officers as they arrived." Meanwhile, dozens of survivors staggered out of the smoking ruins, their faces and bodies covered in blood and dust. The explosion shattered windows in buildings across the street and turned over several cars parked near the church. During the investigation, it was thought that the bomb consisted of at least 15 sticks of dynamite. The device was apparently placed outside the church under a flight of steps that led to the basement.

More medical personnel soon arrived and began to care for the injured. But the huge crowd continued to grow and many people were digging in the rubble searching for more survivors. Police struggled against the frantic rescue workers attempting to keep them out of the crime scene, but it was impossible.

Firemen remove body from church
Firemen remove body from church

"The police are doing everything they can!" Reverend Cross shouted through a bullhorn, "Please go home!" Injured and still covered with his own blood, Reverend Cross broke down in tears, unable to continue.

The four girls at the Baptist Church weren't the only ones to die that Sunday in Birmingham. James Robinson, a black 16-year-old, became involved in a rock-throwing incident with a gang of white teenagers. As he fled from the scene, Robinson ran down an alley near the Sixteenth St. Church and was promptly shot in the back and killed by a white City of Birmingham police officer.

A few hours later, on the outskirts of the city, 13-year-old Virgil Ware, black, was riding on the handlebars of a bicycle with his older brother. From the opposite direction, a red moped, decorated with the Confederate flag, quickly approached the two boys. Without warning, the operator of the motor bike, a white 16-year-old, pulled out a gun and shot Virgil twice in the chest, killing him instantly. The moped sped off (the shooter, who was later convicted of 2nd degree manslaughter, received a seven-month jail sentence).

In the meantime, back at the Baptist Church, furious crowds milled about the Sixteenth Street intersection while shotgun-toting policemen arrived by the dozens. Fistfights broke out and the situation grew more intense by the hour. Black men, still clad in their Sunday suits, covered with dust and sweat, dug through the rubble to search for survivors. On a corner, just down the street from the smoldering ruins, a solitary white man stood motionless at a police barricade. He stared down toward the church, narrowing his eyes to see through the acrid smoke. Charles Vann, a mayor's aide, was on his way to the scene when he spotted the man. He knew the man as Robert Chambliss. He later told reporters the man was "looking down toward the Sixteenth Street church, like a firebug watching his fire."

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