Sarah Collins RudolphAug. 8, 2003
What few people realize is that there was a fifth girl in the ladies' lounge of the church that lethal day in 1963. "She's the one nobody ever talks about," Carolyn McKinstry says. Addie Mae Collins' 12-year-old sister, Sarah, had paused beside the stained-glass window, a few feet away from the other four. Physically, she survived the blast, but survival comes in many forms, with many strings attached. She has refused to tell her story or participate in memorials at the church these many years, but now, after the last bomber was convicted in 2002, Sarah Collins Rudolph has regained her voice.
"On that day, we (she and two of her sisters) walked to church -- Janey (15), Addie and I, happy, having a good time. Junie (16, her older sister) took the bus. When we got there, Janey went to her classroom. Addie and I went downstairs to the basement. We looked at the clock on the wall; we were already late," Sarah remembers.
"We sat in the lounge and waited until Sunday School turned out. Then I saw Cynthia, Denise and Carole coming through the door. They spoke to us and went straight to the restroom on the other side. When they came out, I was standing over by the sink, washing my hands. Denise asked Addie to tie her sash ... . All of a sudden, I heard a loud sound -- BOOM! -- and I was blind in both my eyes. Glass blinded both of them. Then I shouted out, 'ADDIE! ADDIE! ADDIE!' I didn't hear no sound, and I couldn't see, so I thought they'd run out the door and left me.
"The bomb blew a big crater through the building, and I was standing right there in front of it. I didn't know which way to go. Then, all of a sudden somebody just came in, put me in their arms and took me out through that hole."
The last thing Sarah ever saw through her right eye was her older sister crossing the ends of Denise's purple sash between her hands while the girls talked and smiled. That same afternoon in the hospital, Sarah received the news of Addie's death. Her sister Junie was the one to answer the police call requesting a family member identify Addie's body, so Junie took that burden upon herself. Ever since, she has suffered severe stress, resulting in nervous breakdowns and electric-shock treatments that merely exacerbated the memories rather than erase them. Of all the families affected that day, the Collinses' casualty rate was the highest -- the lives of three of four daughters blighted forever.
Sarah stayed in the hospital for 21/2 months, spending her 13th birthday there. After several operations, she started seeing foggily through her left eye. The right was an empty socket, puckered with scars. Today, she has glaucoma in her left eye, and without thrice-daily medication, she would be totally blind. Glass embedded in the tissue behind the orb is permanent, removal by surgery too risky. The same is true for the glass fragments that remain sown in her chest and abdominal walls.
In 1963, there was no counseling or therapy available to children who'd suffered trauma. The financial burden, as well as the emotional one, was borne first by Sarah's family, then by her alone. Applications to the FBI Victim Funds have proved futile; such cases are retroactive only to 1983.
After her release from the hospital, Sarah went back to school, wearing an ill-fitting, mass-produced prosthetic eye that required her to sit very still lest it fell out. She lived in constant dread, she says. A shy and restrained child, she was mocked by her classmates. Nevertheless, she persevered until high school graduation. She declared she wouldn't go to college; the public pillories must end. Because of this and her disabilities, she has worked in Birmingham's steel foundries to support herself.
For 25 years, Sarah remained frozen in a painful emotional and physical constriction, talking to no one about her experience that September Sunday. In 1988, a visiting minister noticed Sarah in the congregation and prayed for her, laying his hand on her forehead and invoking God's spirit. At that moment, she says, the tightly wound spring of fear within her released at last, and for the first time, she felt liberated to live a full life. Since then, she drives on the highway and moves around with freedom. Nervous rashes don't torment her skin, as they did for decades, and she no longer jumps at loud noises. Presently, she is writing a book about her experiences.
Sarah's restored faith in God salves her in ways nothing else has, but she still feels embattled. "I'm angry about all I've been through. People aren't concerned, you know. It hasn't been a bad life, but I just feel like I'm not right yet. You see people who get help for this or for that, but the time hasn't come when anybody gave me any."
Because the Collinses were decimated so profoundly by the events of that Sunday, and their preoccupation at the time with Sarah's injuries, no one knows what happened to Addie's casket after the mass funeral that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arranged. "We can't even find Addie's grave. We've been trying for years; we've written to the White House and filed a suit against the funeral home for their records, but they say they can't help us, because they went bankrupt," Sarah says.
For the surviving Collins family members, the only real closure achieved in the 40 years since the bombing came through the guilty verdicts delivered against Bob Chambliss, Tommy Blanton and Bob Cherry. For Sarah, who has avoided every public appearance associated with her ordeal, including memorial services, her testimony at Tommy Blanton's trial in 2000 marked the first time she'd broken her long-guarded silence.
"I went through the worst thing I think any child could ever go through, and I've still got the scars," she says, "but every time I try to find a door open, for somebody to help, that door just always is closed for me."