• U.S.

Terror’s Venue

12 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick

The games will go on.” those emphatic words were spoken by Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee, after a homemade pipe bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park at 1:21 Saturday morning. His spirited announcement at 5:20 a.m. was an echo of the last time that violence devastated, but did not halt, the Olympic Games, when 11 members of the Israeli team were killed by Palestinians in Munich in 1972. 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. “The bombing was an evil act of terror,” President Clinton said Saturday, vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice. “It is an act of cowardice that stands in sharp contrast to the courage of the Olympic athletes.”

The Games indeed continued in the aftermath of the bombing, with almost 90% attendance rates, but the sense of play–of a profoundly engaging international rivalry and unity at the first fully attended Games in history–had been transformed into something considerably more muted. Alice S. Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Georgia, was killed by the bomb; Melih Uzunyol, a 37-year-old Turkish cameraman, died of a heart attack while rushing to the park to cover the story; and 111 people were wounded, most by shrapnel that flew as far as 100 yards from the blast. Everyone else was simply stunned. “The Olympics have been going so well,” said Sultan Muhammad, an Atlantan who came to watch the Games. “It’s such a shame, a shame to ruin them.”

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. “It happened in an instant,” says Greg Addison, who was standing across the street. “People were just looking at each other, like, ‘Was that a bomb?'” Jennifer Ellis, 24, an Olympics volunteer, had not been able to sleep Friday night, and had joined the throngs in the park. “I was just walking around,” she says, “and the world exploded.” Swimmer Janet Evans, who was inside the glass-fronted Swatch pavilion at her own retirement party, was in the middle of an interview for German television when she heard the bomb. After keeping up a chipper front during her days of disappointing performances at her final Olympics, this was too much. Evans cursed, and fled. “I want to go home,” she said later. “It scares me. It scares me to death.”

As the word passed through the crowd, “It’s a bomb, it’s a bomb,” people started to run. Muhammad says he saw “five or six police officers go down. A lot of people had blood on them.” Davis, one of the agents for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who had early on found the bomb sack and started clearing people away, was knocked into the air by the explosion. When he later rejoined his family nearby, he noticed that a piece of galvanized metal had hit him in the rear end, where it was stopped by the police credentials in his back pocket. He was actually closer to the blast than the woman who was killed.

Ellis, about 15 feet from the stage, knelt down next to a man who kept repeating “What happened? What happened?” She says: “He had a gash in his neck and I kept putting pressure on his neck. I was afraid he was going to bleed to death.” David Loya was on his way back from watching the swimming at the Georgia Tech aquatics center when he heard the explosion. An emergency-medicine doctor, he immediately hopped a ride in a police car to the site, where he helped tend to some of the 20 injured people on the ground, most of whom had penetrating wounds to the neck, abdomen or chest, and another 20 or so of the injured who could still walk.

As people flooded out of the park toward Peachtree Street, a stream of ambulances sped in to carry the wounded to local hospitals. The evacuation was swift and efficient. But even at four in the morning the streets were still populated; authorities had thrown up a non-negotiable security barricade around the park, stranding many people who could not get back to their hotels. Resigned to living through a strange night, many just curled up to sleep on the sidewalks as helicopters whirred overhead. Khaki-clad soldiers marched in formation into the Main Press Center, while men in FBI jackets poked about the crash site. “I figured this would be something I could tell my grandchildren about,” said Robert Gee, a graduate student at Arizona State University whose amateur video of the explosion was broadcast on CNN. “Unfortunately, it turned out to be something I could tell my grandchildren about.”

At a makeshift waiting center set up in the auditorium of Grady Memorial Hospital, a mile from the park, shaken relatives and friends of victims gathered in search of information about their loved ones. From time to time, a Red Cross nurse would appear and read out names written in blue ballpoint pen on her rubber gloves. Much of her news was reasonably good: most patients had only minor injuries. Meanwhile, those waiting traded stories about the night. “It didn’t seem like a real bomb to me,” said John, a young British man who was crying as he waited for news of an injured friend. “It could have been a generator or something. It’s not like the kind of bombs we have in London.”

Although it was almost unimaginable that Atlanta would turn out to be like London–or Munich, for that matter–authorities thought they had done all they could to ensure that these would be the safest Olympic games in history. Even before the explosion of TWA Flight 800, the White House was acutely aware that the Games were a big, inviting terrorist target, and Vice President Al Gore personally reviewed all the security arrangements for Atlanta. Indeed, the bombing on Saturday occurred in the midst of what amounts to an armed camp–with 30,000 law-enforcement officers deployed to protect 10,000 athletes and 2 million fans. In addition, 11,000 National Guard and active-duty military personnel are on Olympics duty, including more than 500 Delta Force and SEAL-Team 6 commandos, airmen from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and specially trained U.S. Army Rangers to be part of a backup force in case local police or the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team need help. Most of the 500 commandos are on alert at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but a small contingent, armed with hidden weapons, have been patrolling Olympic sites in civilian garb, on the lookout for anything suspicious. In addition, the Army has bomb-dismantling experts and specialists trained to deal with chemical or biological weapons at the ready in Atlanta, along with more than a dozen scientists from the Nuclear Emergency Search Team to deal with atomic terror. Metal-detection equipment is set up outside all venues, and a sophisticated security system matches live handprints to a chip on your ID badge. The Olympic Village is a virtual fortress: on city streets, manhole covers have been welded down to prevent anyone from getting access to power lines.

Yet none of this manpower or technology prevented a man with a .45-cal. handgun from strolling into the opening ceremonies. And it proved useless in the face of what investigators describe as a relatively crude device–three 2-in.-by-10-in. bombs made of screws and nails packed into a pipe and taped together. The FBI immediately labeled the explosion a terrorist act. And the agency believes the perpetrators are homegrown–that it is, in FBI parlance, a “bubba job.” Though the State Department immediately launched foreign inquiries, a senior official there declared that “there’s no evidence of any foreign involvement.”

By the end of Saturday, authorities were already expressing confidence that the criminals would be swiftly captured. In addition to amateur videotape of the area, surveillance cameras ringed the park, and officials are scrutinizing the images for clues. One federal bomb expert told TIME the device left good forensics: the atf and the FBI have picked up enough pieces of important bomb debris from the site to be able to reconstruct the bomb quickly and figure out its origin. The fragments have already been flown to Washington for analysis. Not only that, the expert says, witnesses have described seeing three or four white men carrying a knapsack similar to the one that held the bomb. All Olympic venues were swept Saturday morning in case a second bomb had been planted. None was found, although there was a scare at the Atlanta Underground shopping mall and the adjacent MARTA station.

Joe Roy, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Militia Task Force, says that pipe bombs are consistent with militia involvement and that the Olympics are despised in right-wing hate circles. “The movement perceives the Olympics as a showcase for the new world order,” he explains. “It’s all the nations of the world coming together in a spirit of peace and harmony.” But the Center for Democratic Renewal, a group that monitors hate groups in Atlanta, says extremists had not seemed especially interested in the Olympic hoopla. Says research associate Noah Chandler: “I’ve seen very little on the Internet or on the hate lines linked to the Olympics.” Authorities have logged a number of calls since the explosion and have ruled nothing out. As William Waugh Jr., a terrorism expert at Georgia State University, says, “Sometimes it’s just a lone nut or even a kid.”

Whoever it was, Day Eight of the Olympic Games proceeded, with a light rain falling on dampened but unintimidated spirits. “Being scared only lets them win,” says volunteer Ellis, who planned to go back to work at the park. “It’s regrettable,” says Lee Tucker, who was at the Georgia World Congress Center to see table-tennis matches. “But that’s the world we live in.” John Stokes, an Atlanta sales representative, had debated whether to stay away from the Games but decided to attend, along with his wife and daughter. “I really wanted to come because I was mad, and I wasn’t going to let somebody stop me,” he says. “But my mood has changed. Even though I’m trying hard not to let it affect me, it’s in my mind.”

In the Olympic Village, the mood may have changed, but for the most part it was determined. “We’ve got to get on with what we’re here to do,” says Robert Norris, a track-and-field coach for the South African team. “We’re too busy to worry.” U.S. hammer thrower Kevin McMahon agreed. After years of preparation, he was ready to compete Saturday. “This is just a reminder that sports is the ideal, not the reality,” McMahon says. “It would be nice to do nothing but practice and compete, but that would be living life with blinders on.”

Still, it was not much fun. A large section of downtown near Olympic Park remained blocked off Saturday. Fans with tickets to the hotly anticipated track-and- field events Saturday arrived to find flags flying at half-staff and a dense cordon of security around Olympic Stadium. Basketball lovers at the Georgia Dome were forced to wait in extra-long lines, as several entrances were closed. And at Lake Lanier, where rowing finals were taking place, soldiers toting machine guns patrolled the grandstands. It did not look much like America. But it was. –Reported by Mark Coatney, Adam Cohen, Sally B. Donnelly, Barry Hillenbrand, Lawrence Mondi, Robert Sullivan, David E. Thigpen, Steve Wulf and Richard Zoglin/Atlanta and Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/Washington

A special Website at time.com/olympic–bombing features the latest Atlanta explosion news and insights from TIME correspondents.

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