A year later, judge recounts day his life exploded

December 20, 1990|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

HAGERSTOWN -- His pants were heavy with blood. He feared he was going to die.

But then, slumped against a wall in his blast-torn apartment, Washington County Judge John P. Corderman began reciting to himself, over and over again: "God grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the courage to change those things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

On the verge of panic, Corderman began to feel a wave of serenity wash over him. He somehow knew, he recalled this week, that whatever was to happen to him would be all right.

Corderman, of course, survived the explosion of a pipe bomb mailed to his apartment one year ago this Saturday. He sustained injuries to his hands, groin area and eardrums, but was released from the hospital Christmas Day and returned to the bench a month and a half after the bombing.

"Presents didn't get wrapped, and cards didn't get sent, but that was the best Christmas I ever had in my life," Corderman recalled. "I received the gift of life."

Nearly a year later, no one has been arrested in the case, but eight investigators are working full-time on it.

Doug Ostwalt, a postal inspector heading up one phase of the investigation, said yesterday that they are focusing on a dozen potential suspects from Corderman's personal and professional life. No arrest is imminent, he said.

He said investigators do not believe the bombing was connected to earlier bombings in the Southeast, in which an alderman and a federal judge were killed. Ostwalt said someone probably had a grudge against Corderman, but didn't know how to act on it until hearing about the other bombings.

The TV show, "Missing Reward," featured the Corderman case last month, but that has produced no leads, Ostwalt said. Hosted by Stacy Keach, the show features unsolved cases that carry rewards for information leading to arrests. In the Corderman case there are three rewards totaling $75,000.

"Missing Reward" re-enacted the bombing, even down to paramedics loading the judge into the ambulance in his red Christmas socks. The show, however, was pre-empted by a golf tournament in the afternoon and didn't air until after midnight.

Corderman, 48, a Circuit Court judge for 13 years, sat on a love seat in his office Tuesday and talked for two hours about the bombing, his recovery and his new approach to life.

"I have a very significant appreciation for what it means to live for today; I mean this 24 hours," he said. "I recognize that today is God's gift to me."

A sturdy man with a square, serious face capable of producing a surprisingly boyish smile, Corderman was transfixed as he recounted the bombing in intense detail. He had returned to his third-floor apartment a few blocks from downtown Hagerstown shortly after 2 p.m. last Dec. 22. A package was propped against his apartment door.

He picked it up, unlocked the door, stepped inside, walked to his answering machine and began listening to his messages. He set the package on a waist-high table -- early reports erroneously said he held it on his lap -- and cut through the tape with a key. He lifted the flap.

An explosion threw Corderman back two or three feet against a wall. At first he thought his answering machine had exploded, because it was on fire. Papers on the table were burning.

"But then I smelled gunpowder," he said. "And I thought, 'Son of a gun, a bomb.' "

He tried to put out the fires but couldn't, he recalled. Composed, he walked into the hallway and pulled the fire alarm. A neighbor who had heard the explosion asked what happened and went to get a fire extinguisher.

Corderman walked back into his apartment and dialed 911. For the first time he realized that the tip of the middle finger on his right hand was dangling. The 911 dispatcher answered his call.

"And he said, 'Police, fire and rescue.' And I said, 'I want one of each.' " Corderman said.

He noticed that his pants felt heavy. He looked down and saw that he was standing in a puddle of blood growing larger, and he saw that the front of his pants were soaked with blood.

"I thought I was in a lot of trouble," Corderman said. "Things started to get dark. I thought I was going to die."

He leaned back against a wall and slid to the floor. His head was ringing terribly from the explosion. It was three days before Christmas, and he thought: "I'm not going to see my children again. I'm going to die right here on the floor."

But then he began reciting the serenity prayer. And he accepted his fate.

Rescue workers arrived and cut off all his clothes, except his red Christmas socks. He was wearing the same socks during the interview Tuesday. They are red with little teddy bears that spell NOEL. He was also wearing a red tie with little green Christmas trees.

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