By Olivia B. Waxman
July 27, 2016

Precisely 20 years ago—on July 27, 1996—terror struck the Summer Olympics in Atlanta when a pipe bomb exploded during a concert at Centennial Olympic Park, killing one mother and injuring more than 100. President Bill Clinton called the attack “an act of cowardice that stands in sharp contrast to the courage of the Olympic athletes.”

As TIME’s August 5, 1996, cover story described the scene of the crime and how the atmosphere of the games shifted from hope to fear:

Until the ground shook and the peace was shattered, Olympic Park had been the site of a weeklong open-air party. Covering 21 acres, it was the spiritual heart of the festival, a melting pot where many thousands of visitors daily could wander without paying for tickets, or passing through metal detectors. It was the place where the kids could frolic in a misty fountain. It was also the commercial heart of the games, home to the Swatch pavilion, the Coca-Cola Olympic City, Budweiser’s Bud World, and an enormous AT&T sound stage. And as the competition drew to a close Friday evening, thousands of revelers had gathered here to enjoy a free concert by Jack Mack and the Heart Attack—or simply continue savoring the excitement of the day.

But Olympic Park was also the place that security experts had privately worried was most vulnerable to terrorist attack. And in the early hours of Saturday morning, two events swiftly focused those concerns. About 18 minutes before the explosion, a call came in to 911. According to FBI agent David (“Woody”) Johnson, “a white male with an indistinguishable” American accent warned that a bomb would go off at the park within 30 minutes. At about the same time, Tom Davis, of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who had been alerted to a suspicious bag by a stage security guard, viewed an unattended olive-green knapsack leaning up against the 40-ft. NBC sound tower 150 ft. from the stage. The officer called the bomb ordnance squad, which included FBI and ATF agents and military personnel. Joined by other officers, the police began to warn the crowd away from the site. But the young, jolly revelers, many waving cups of beer, didn’t take directions very well. Two or three minutes later, the evacuation was still in progress when suddenly there was a flash of light and a boom. The smell of gunpowder filled the air.

At first, according to eyewitnesses, few understood what had happened. There were even audible whoops from the pumped-up crowd, who thought the sound-and-light show was just part of the concert’s special effects…

In the aftermath of the bombing, however, attention shifted to the mismanagement of the case.

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Security guard Richard Jewell had first been hailed as a hero for noticing the knapsack under a park bench and then identified as the FBI’s key suspect. Among other missteps during the investigation, agents asked him to come in for a videotaped interview, telling him it was a training video, but it wasn’t clear to Jewell that he was a suspect — a tactic that the Department of Justice a year later deemed a “major error in judgment.” Unable to find enough evidence to target him, the FBI cleared him after three months.

But while the feds were ending their investigation, Jewell was just starting to go after the against journalists who had covered the probe, seeking redress for the articles that might have led readers to assume his guilt. He sued and settled with some news outlets, while seeking corrections and clarifications from others (including TIME), but the media’s coverage of the investigation stayed with him up until his death in 2007 at age 44. Kent Alexander, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said in a New York Times documentary on the Jewell case that “the obvious lesson learned from Richard Jewell is avoid identifying people as a suspect if there’s not a really good reason to do so, because it can lead to just what happened in Richard Jewell’s case, the identification of someone who was not only innocent, but a hero.”

The FBI charged the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, in 1998 after linking the attack to similar ones at a gay nightclub and at abortion clinics. Rudolph fled, setting off one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history. In May 2003, a rookie cop arrested him after randomly spotting him at a grocery store in rural North Carolina. TIME’s article on the capture described him as a Holocaust denier who lived in the woods. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to life in prison, after confessing that the blast at the Olympics was supposed “to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the word for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”

But one insight from the TIME’s 1996 cover story that will resonate with readers 20 years later:

But this determination not to let a terrorist act obliterate the Olympic spirit was also a stance against an unwanted future—against an awful time when terrorism might become woven into the fabric of American life. And the Games, as they go on, must do so under different rules. For despite authorities’ worst fears that something like this would happen in Atlanta, despite unprecedented precautions and a massive security effort, it is beginning to feel as if safe American soil is turning to quicksand.


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