In Boston, a replay of Atlanta’s Olympic nightmare

Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this report.

“It’s Atlanta reincarnated.”

With those words, former GBI supervisor Charles Stone captured what many Atlantans felt: the jolting similarities between Boston bombing and the one that struck the Atlanta Olympics 17 years ago.

On Tuesday, Centennial Olympic Park looked much as usual with children squealing in the ring fountain, tourists passing through with museum shopping bags, and workers on lunch breaks working their phones.

But it didn’t feel usual, said Bettina Eronini, a CPA whose daily lunch walk takes her by the spot where Eric Robert Rudolph’s bomb exploded amid Olympic revelers.

Looking at the spot where it happened, she was thinking about the parallels to Boston. “I was thinking that it could easily happen to us,” she said.

Stone, who responded to the 1996 bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, saw more: lessons learned.

From the quick action of Boston’s first responders to the cooperation among investigating agencies, Stone discerned the legacy of Atlanta’s tragedy — both successes and failures.

He praised the speedy organization of the Boston investigation. Atlanta’s experience, he said, drove home the importance of cities establishing joint terrorism task forces to coordinate local, state and federal responses.

Beyond that, he said, he hopes investigators in Boston have learned from a big mistake made in Atlanta: exposing a suspect’s identity early in the probe. In Atlanta, that was Richard Jewell, a security guard at the Olympics who quickly became the target of investigators and the media. Jewell was later cleared.

“You have to keep your eyes open, and not have fixed tunnel vision on one person. And you don’t release their name unless you have a good, solid reason,” said Stone, author of a book called “Hunting Eric Rudolph.”

By focusing so tightly on Jewell, he said, investigators allowed Rudolph to go free. In the seven years that he remained at large, Rudolph bombed two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub.

Thus far, investigators in Boston are “being very circumspect, and rightfully so,” he said.

Watching Monday’s TV news reports from his home in Newnan, Stone, now retired from the GBI, also noted concrete similarities between the Boston and Atlanta attacks. Both bombers used devices constructed with low-grade explosives and projectiles rather than sophisticated plastic explosives. Both chose high-profile public events celebrating athletic prowess. Both killed only a few people (two in Atlanta, three, thus far, in Boston) but left over 100 wounded.

For Kimberly Krautter, witnessing the Atlanta bombing changed her life. She was handling public relations at the park, conducting a photo shoot at a sound tower, when she was told to evacuate by Richard Jewell. She was still in the park when the bomb exploded.

The aftermath led her to specialize in crisis management. “That was my baptism by fire,” Krautter said.

When she saw the images of the carnage in Boston, “I was immediately struck by the similarities, and my heart went out to the victims.”

She felt, more than anything, anger. “It is so senseless. It’s such a violation,” she said.

She believes authorities in Boston are doing a good job of coordinating their message, but sees some “missteps” as well.

“I see instances in which information is being leaked,” she said. Those bits of information can lead some in the media to weave their own narratives, she said, which aren’t always accurate. “I don’t want them to Richard-Jewell somebody.”

Denise Pie, 48, sees Atlanta teaching Boston another lesson — about struggle and resilience.

She wasn’t at Centennial Olympic Park at the moment of the bombing but had been there earlier that day.

“It didn’t keep people from coming here from so many places. People still flock here,” she said.

She said Boston is definitely on her mind, but that didn’t deter her from visiting Centennial Park Tuesday. She wanted to find the Olympic commemorative paving brick that her husband, who helped build the park, dedicated to her family. He died two years later.

“I’m not going to live in terror,” she said. “If we live in terror, we become prisoners in our own home. That’s not part of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”