Abortion Clinic Bombing Victim Emily Lyons Speaks Out
Emily Lyons, the victim of an 'Army of God' bombing at a Birmingham, Ala., women's clinic, describes her horrific experience in this interview.
On Jan. 29, a nail-packed bomb exploded outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Center in Birmingham, Ala., killing off-duty police officer Robert "Sande" Sanderson and maiming nurse Emily Lyons.
Lyons, the 42-year-old mother of two daughters, had her shins blasted away, her left eye destroyed and her right eye severely damaged. Her entire body was riddled with nails and shrapnel.
She has endured nine surgeries, lengthy rehabilitation to learn to walk again, and excruciating skin grafts and scrubbing of abscessed wounds. Her legs are still mutilated, her face and eyelids remain scarred, and shrapnel still works its way out of her body, requiring additional surgeries. Some will never be removed.
With her damaged hands, she will never again play the piano; with what is left of her vision, she can barely read. Her hearing has been damaged. And she still faces a probable year of continuing medical procedures.
The Intelligence Report interviewed Lyons and her husband, Jeff, about her injuries, their life since the attack and their feelings about accused bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, who was still a fugitive after a six-month manhunt. The Intelligence Report also spoke with Felecia Sanderson, widow of the slain policeman.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Emily, could you describe what you've been through medically in the last six months?
EMILY LYONS: Does "hell" describe it? How many hours do we have? I spent eight weeks in the hospital. I've had nine surgeries, and I've got plastic surgery left to go. I still have one big piece of shrapnel in my chest that bothers me a lot and will have to come out.
The last surgery, about six weeks ago, was to put a lens implant in my eye. You wish that they could just put a pair of glasses on and clear up everything. But they can't, and my vision is still not clear.
That's been the hardest so far. For a day or so after the surgery, you're completely blind again, just like I was at the beginning. [Looks at Jeff.] You were back to feeding me, walking me to the bathroom, "don't let me go or I'll fall."
Now, my eyes are real sensitive to light. You also get this response where if the eye gets hurt, you'll pass out. After that operation, the doctor was checking my eye out, doing this and that, and I just said bye-bye. It's a different kind of pain.
JEFF LYONS: Some of these surgeries, when they had an abscess open they would leave it open. Emily had a major incision on her chest, like open heart surgery. They sewed the underlying muscle together but they left the outside open, because with the swelling it would have burst. They never did sew it up. It finally healed, but she had an open wound for absolutely weeks.
After getting out of the hospital, she had two more surgeries to remove more shrapnel. There is still a lot of shrapnel in there, but they say it will do more damage to take it out than to leave it.
She's had some areas that would abscess, or the shrapnel would move, so they would have to go back in and dig the nails out. The first surgery, they got five nails out of her right leg. Then they had to go back to get more metal fragments.
IR: How did the recovery process go once you were home?
JEFF: We would have to change the packing on some wounds once or twice a day. They have this stuff that's just like a cotton strip, but I guess it's soaked in iodine. You have to pack that in there.
To give you an idea, the first time I pulled the packing out from this little scar here [indicates a half-inch scar on Emily's leg], it was three-and-a-half feet long. That was from one little incision, packed under one little muscle. It was horribly painful.
EMILY: It was just... The fire is tremendous.
JEFF: I felt so sorry for her when I would change it. I'd put the sterile gloves on and she would hand me Q-tips to pack it with. You could just see the look on her face when she did that, like when you were a kid and your dad makes you go get the switch.
EMILY: It wasn't fun. If the day started out bad and you had that dressing on top of that, there was no way to control yourself. I remember one day in particular. The day started off bad and it was a bad night, no sleep. Then they told me it was time to take me to change the dressing on my legs. I just couldn't handle the pain from the scrubbing.
Then there were the days when you think, "Oh, I can do without the pain pills today. Let's try it." Where was the bullet to bite?
[Brings out photographs of the surgeries.] We have bad pictures, and we have really bad pictures. I won't even let my youngest see the really bad pictures.
JEFF: All these black dots [indicating photo of Emily's face] are one-stitch closures. She had dozens of them, from rocks and metal shrapnel, all over her face. Her lip was burst, her tooth was broken and her eyelids both had to be reconstructed.
IR: What has been the hardest part?
JEFF: The worst for me was when I had to give the surgeon permission to take her eye out. Vision is so incredibly important to us. Next to life itself, it's our most important gift.
EMILY: This is definitely a vision-oriented world.
JEFF: At first, they told me there was a 50-50 chance of her living. They didn't know if her liver was hit. Then they came down and said they might have to amputate her leg.
When they said, "We need your permission to remove the left eye — and, by the way, her right eye is badly damaged and we can't tell if it will be functional again," that was unbearable. The thought that, even if she lived, she would always visualize her children as being 13 and 17...
IR: How has it been for your daughters?
EMILY: They've had to grow up a lot this year. They are having to take care of Mom, which I hate. But there's no option right now. It's matured them a lot, and that's good in a way. But it came earlier than it should have.
My oldest daughter is my driver, my cook, my housekeeper, my shopper, everything. I feel like I'm a child learning to walk again.
IR: And how have you changed?
EMILY: I used to be wallflower. I taught nursing for two years at a university and I hated it. I didn't like being up in front of a group of people.
JEFF: I remember in the first press conference [while Emily was still in the hospital], I said I would be happy to talk to the media, but I really didn't think that my wife would be up to ever doing a media event. She's certainly a different woman today.
The other interesting thing is that her hair was just about perfectly straight before this, and now it has come out really wavy. We call it her "perma-blast."
EMILY: Somebody asked me if anything could intimidate me any more. I don't think so. When you've been blown up, I don't think there's anything that can.
IR: You renewed your wedding vows three months after the bombing.
JEFF: Obviously, in the emergency room, Emily's ring was not the first thing on my mind. Her hand was grotesquely swollen, and I thought they had probably cut the ring off and thrown it in the trash. She had never taken that band off since the day we got married.
About a week after it happened, a police officer called me at work and said, "I've got your wife's ring. I'm sorry, I shined it up as best I could." He was actually apologizing that it might be dirty or have some blood on it. That really hit me, that this officer would take the time to polish the ring up before giving it to us.
EMILY: That ring had never been off.
JEFF: She wanted a special ceremony to put it back on. I also gave her a locket with Jan. 29 [the date of the bombing] inscribed on the back. I wanted to give it to her with the ring. Exactly three months later, we got married again.
EMILY: On April 29, I put that ring back on.
IR: Emily, you recently testified in Washington before the House Subcommittee on Crime, which was considering whether or not RICO [the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally aimed at organized crime] should apply to clinic violence.
I understand that [U.S. Rep.] Henry Hyde [R-Ill., a long-time abortion opponent] tried to keep you from appearing. What happened?
EMILY: Between the press and Congressman [John] Conyers [D-Mich.], he just caved in.
But there weren't many Republicans there, and [Hyde] didn't show up. It was, "I'm going to listen to what [witnesses] I want to hear and then I'm out of here."
IR: Despite that, how did you feel after the hearing?
EMILY: If that trip to D.C. changed anything, it made me feel stronger about the system. If it hadn't, everything would just seem so futile.
IR: What has been the response to you from the broader public?
JEFF: We've heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of people. [Shows a box containing seven photo albums full of cards and letters.]
EMILY: For the most part, all have said that it shouldn't have happened. One even came from one of the [anti-abortion] protesters here in town.
Then there are the ones that I call the "nasty-grams." They told me that if I don't repent and mend my evil ways, I will burn in a lake of fire, that it's better to lose an eye than burn in a lake of fire.
I say to them, I've already done that. I have no intention of going back and doing it again.
IR: What is life like now that you're such a public figure?
EMILY: We went out to a restaurant the other day and there was a guy sitting by himself right next to us. He kept turning around and staring. I'm just looking, thinking, "Is he going to bring out a gun or what's the deal?" Did he just recognize me, or was this a bad guy?
The other week in Washington, we had a bodyguard and everything. Even with him lurking around, I caught myself doing the same thing. Some guy walks a little bit too close with his hands in his pockets and in your mind you're thinking, "Is this it?"
IR: I understand that both Robert Sanderson [the off-duty police officer who was killed in the bombing] and his wife were personally opposed to abortion. What is your relationship with Felecia Sanderson now?
EMILY: She keeps in contact fairly frequently. Her opinion is her opinion. She knows what I did for a living, and it doesn't bother her, that I know of.
We were watching the memorial [for Sanderson] on the news the other night and then they showed the date on his headstone. I lost it. It just really hit home.
IR: Eric Rudolph, the alleged bomber, has been on the run for six months now. What's your reaction when you see pictures of this man?
EMILY: There are not enough words to describe what you want done to him, or to describe what kind of person would do this. I would like to sit and watch him die. I don't think it would bother me a bit.
JEFF: His life is over, one way or the other. He could spend it in a cave hiding in the woods, which is solitary confinement. It's just a matter of what causes his heart to stop beating. I mean, does he die of natural causes, or does he die in a shootout or is he executed? I don't know if it matters so much.
EMILY: I don't think of him as a wonderful child, like his mother does. He should have had counseling years ago. I have other words for him, but they are not nice. He's evil. That recent picture of him, his face is dead, just as dead as they come.
IR: What do you think when you hear people telling reporters they support Rudolph?
JEFF: It makes your head spin around and around.
EMILY: A neighbor of his the other night was saying on television that they would not turn him in.
Well, he's not one of them any more. He has killed somebody, so he's not one of the good ol' boys any more. I'm sure he would just as soon kill them as anybody else who gets in his way.
They are not looking at the issue. He killed somebody. Are they really that far back in the woods? Are they that out of touch with reality?
IR: How does it feel to have terrorism hit you personally?
JEFF: It's no longer just a concept, something you hear about in Beirut or someplace. It's something most Americans cannot relate to at all. I know people who were in Vietnam and Desert Storm, but for most people, it's just a concept what it means to be on the bad end of a bomb.
Eventually, they'll catch Rudolph. But no one is going after the people who planted this seed. No one is going after the people who did the Army of God handbook that shows you how to make these bombs. Rudolph may have been the only person at the clinic that day. But they should be paying attention to the people who turned Rudolph from whatever he was into what he is now.
IR: Is there a message that you have for America after this ordeal?
JEFF: That it didn't work. This is not the way. This did not accomplish anything, other than it made Felecia Sanderson a widow and drastically hurt Emily. It didn't further their cause. If anything, I think it set it back.
EMILY: Violence is not the way to do it. If you want to change something, go through the system. You don't take it upon yourself to decide what is right and wrong.