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Survivor of Sterling Hall bombing looks back, 50 years later

Buried under rubble for three hours, he somehow survived
Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 7:06 AM CDT
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When Professor David Schuster looks back on the morning four Vietnam War protesters set off a bomb at the University of Wisconsin’s Sterling Hall to protest the presence of the Army Math Research Center there, he realizes it’s remarkable he’s alive to talk about it.

Schuster said during a Zoom interview, “People asked me how I survived. I wondered myself.” He added, “Because Robert (Fassnacht) and I had been essentially in the same place at the same time.”

The 33-year-old Fassnacht, a post-doctoral researcher, was killed instantly in the blast.

Looking back on that morning 50 years ago, Schuster, then 27, said he was taking his turn keeping an eye on the UW-Madison Physics Department’s accelerator, and went to grab something to read just before the bomb went off at 3:42 a.m.

Here’s what he remembers of the exact moments leading up to the blast: “I saw in the hallway Robert Fassnacht, talking to somebody else, whom I now think must have been the security guard. I didn’t say anything to them...just nodded....and went in to look for the stuff I had come for. And that’s all I remember. That was it. I have no knowledge of the blast--no terrible, dramatic experience of terror. Some hours later--I don’t know how long--I gradually awoke, drifted in and out of sleep, which seemed it must be a nightmare, because I seemed to be buried under rubble in the dark. Water was rising underneath me (broken water main), my ears were ringing, glasses had disappeared, I couldn’t see anything. This made no sense, so I rejected it. I decided it was a dream, but it certainly became clear this wasn’t a dream--I really was there.”

He was buried under rubble, except for one free arm. He was able to move some heavy debris and eventually managed to free his other arm. Schuster said, “There was a metal door frame twisted over me. I tried to reach up and pull myself up that way. Too painful. My shoulder was broken. Couldn’t move. So, there wasn’t anything else to do…except wonder.”

Some two to three hours after the blast, Madison firefighters found him buried in the rubble...apparently saved because of where he had been standing. According to Schuster, “The only possible reason that I wasn’t killed instantly, I must have been standing directly behind a building support, so the full force of the blast was taken by the pillar I was in the shadow of. So, I was injured very badly but otherwise it would have been instantaneous for me. So, that’s the happenstance. I happened to be standing there, instead of two foot to the right.”

He estimates Fassnacht was only 10 to 12 feet away from him. “That sort of brings philosophical thoughts about life and chance events, and happenstance in place and time. Because almost everything involved here was so highly unlikely that it ever would have happened to Robert, or me, or anyone else--being just there in that time and place. I look at many things in life and see that no matter how many events are occurring--good and bad, to me and others--they depend on a whole lot of other, small events beforehand or after that went one way or the other.”

There is one poignant memory he’ll always live with: “The one thing I do remember with the most sadness when I look back, is seeing Robert just a few minutes before then. I think he had his jacket on, had his bag, he was ready to leave. It’s just a feeling of incredible sadness that Robert should have been there at that particular time, on his way home within a few minutes. If he’d left earlier, he might have been safe. But you never quite know. It seemed such a tragedy to me. I felt really strongly for him and on behalf of his family, and his work--that’s the strongest emotional thing that reminds for me.”

Full unedited interview with Professor David Schuster:

Professor Schuster suffered permanent hearing loss in the blast. After his recovery, he finished his dissertation, went home to South Africa, taught there, and then returned in 2002 to teach at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

In 2007, NBC15 News interviewed convicted Sterling Hall bomber Karl Armstrong, who said he was “devasted” and regretted that the bombing had killed Fassnacht. Armstrong said, “I know his children are still bitter. You know, I don’t think that’s going to go away. I’d just like to apologize to them for taking their father’s life.”

I wondered how Prof. Schuster felt about that apology. He answered, “I don’t know what it means to accept an apology in this instance. For some reason, I have to say, I appreciate that, but accepting that is another matter. I do appreciate it. It’s the best answer I can give you.” He added, “Do I forgive the bombers? I think it should be a much broader question: Do I forgive everybody who was responsible historically (for the Vietnam War). That is a different question, which I hadn’t thought about before.”

The professor said he resents the bombers for the death of Fassnacht, and the fact they did a great amount of research to make the bomb but didn’t take better care to make sure the building was empty, but he added without the war, there would have been no Sterling Hall Bombing, and many other tragedies.

Schuster said, “We talked about the bombers, as if they caused this, which they did. But you know what led to that, and who caused everything that led back to those events. You know misguided they may have been and how badly they may have turned out, I don’t want to lose sight of that--that it was a consequence of high level, so-called legitimate actions and policies and structures in the country and in the world. I think people should keep that in mind.”

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