Daughter of Olympic bombing victim: ‘It was a terrible, terrible day’

Terrorism struck the Olympics for the first time since Munich in 1972 when a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Saturday July 27, 1996, killing Alice S. Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Ga., shown in an undated family photo.
Terrorism struck the Olympics for the first time since Munich in 1972 when a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Saturday July 27, 1996, killing Alice S. Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Ga., shown in an undated family photo.

Fallon Stubbs often touches her sister’s hands.

They remind her so much of their mother’s.

When Stubbs looks in the mirror, her mother’s face stares back at her.

“It’s hard when you wake up every morning and you’re looking at a person whom you absolutely loved and adored, who is no longer here,” she said. “When I’m out, I know why people are looking at me. I remind them of her. They’ll say, ‘God, you look so familiar’. I have to decide whether I want to go through that song and dance that day. I very rarely tell people who I am.”

Fallon Stubbs (left) and as a child with her mother, Centennial Olympic Park bombing victim Alice Hawthorne (right).
Fallon Stubbs (left) and as a child with her mother, Centennial Olympic Park bombing victim Alice Hawthorne (right).

Stubbs is the youngest daughter of Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old Albany businesswoman and cable company customer service representative who was the only person to die when a pipe bomb hidden in a backpack exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park at 1:20 a.m. on July 27, 1996.

More than 100 others were injured, including Stubbs, who was 14 at the time. A second person, Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol, later died of a heart attack while rushing to the scene.

The bombing and its aftermath are the focus of a new film, “Richard Jewell,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Olivia Wilde. Paul Walter Hauser stars in the title role as the security guard who became an early suspect in the bombing, although it was later determined that he wasn’t involved. Serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing nine years later and was sent to prison.

>>RELATED | Opinion: Film tries to fix on reputation, attacks another

Stubbs, now 37, said her family was not consulted about the movie. She only found out about it when the mother of a local actress auditioning to play her reached out on social media about 10 months ago.

It caught her by surprise.

“I was like, ‘I’m sorry, you’re playing me for what’?,” said Stubbs, a senior pharmacy technician, during a telephone interview from Albany. “That’s how I found out about the movie.”

She ultimately spoke at length with the actress who got the part, but initially, didn’t want to have any affiliation with the movie. “I did not like the way it has come about. You don’t take a person’s name, likeness or story and not even give the courtesy of a phone call. You don’t have to tell my story to tell his (Jewell’s) story,” she said.

Fallon Stubbs, 14, and John Hawthorne, daughter and husband of Olympic Park bombing victim Alice Hawthorne, react as they listen to the premiere performance of a special composition in memory of Alice Hawthorne Tuesday, April 15, 1997, at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta. It was part of the college’s annual Spring Concert. Hawthorne of Albany, Ga., was killed when a pipebomb exploded at the park during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Fallon Stubbs, 14, and John Hawthorne, daughter and husband of Olympic Park bombing victim Alice Hawthorne, react as they listen to the premiere performance of a special composition in memory of Alice Hawthorne Tuesday, April 15, 1997, at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta. It was part of the college’s annual Spring Concert. Hawthorne of Albany, Ga., was killed when a pipebomb exploded at the park during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Over the years, Stubbs has been contacted by people interested in retelling the story of the early-morning bombing through documentaries or other broadcasts. She also hears from reporters, particularly during major anniversaries of the tragedy.

These days she rarely answers her phone if she doesn’t recognize the number.

“It was a terrible, terrible day,” she said. “It was something sad that happened to me. But I am not a person that’s so consumed by that one aspect of my life. People forget I had another 23 years.”

After her mother’s death, Stubbs went to live with her biological father and his wife.

It wasn’t easy.

She had to adjust to a new school and another mother figure. She worried about the toll it could take on her father’s marriage.

“The 16-year-old Fallon was a terror,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with my anger. I didn’t know what to do with my sadness. I didn’t know what to do with that pain and to have people all the time want to talk about it. There was no counseling in black Southern families. I literally had to get up every day and figure it out.

>> READ | Atlanta to relive one of its best, worst times with “Richard Jewell”

Living in a small city like Albany has helped.

Her mother’s friends are ready to offer support if needed, and they often tell her stories about her mother.

But it also means frequently reliving her darkest day.

When people introduce her they sometimes mention that she’s the daughter of the women who was killed in the Olympic bombing.

It makes her cringe.

“My family will always be part of that night,” she said. “Like cotton, that bombing will always be embedded in the fabric of my life, but it is not the only part of my life.”

Stubbs was three days past her 14th birthday when the pipe bomb blew her life apart.

A jubilant crowd had gathered at the park in downtown Atlanta to hear music and celebrate the Olympic Games. The name of the band on stage at that moment escapes her. Later, some news reports would say the band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, was her favorite, but it wasn’t. She was a child of hip-hop.

Fallon Stubbs holds onto banner memorializing her mother, Alice Hawthorne at Centennial Park in this 1997 AJC file photo. Hawthorne was killed in 1996 by a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park.
Fallon Stubbs holds onto banner memorializing her mother, Alice Hawthorne at Centennial Park in this 1997 AJC file photo. Hawthorne was killed in 1996 by a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park.

She and her mother had decided to go the park on a lark. The original plan was to drive to a relative’s house in Douglasville where they planned to stay for the Olympics. She knew her daughter loved basketball, which is why they were at the Games.

They had been at the park a little over an hour.

A smiling Alice Hawthorne stood in front of a statue as Stubbs lifted her disposal camera to take her photo. The camera later became evidence.

Suddenly, there was a loud explosion like someone popped a paper bag next to your ear, only thousands of times worse.

Hawthorne took the brunt of the blast. Her body spun around from the impact. She was riddled by shrapnel. One piece hit her in the eye.

Stubbs fell down, reeling. Volunteers screamed for people to get down.

Her mother was on the ground, surrounded by about 15 people.

“I knew that if she wasn’t dead, she was close to it,” said Stubbs. “This was my best friend, the love of my life on the ground.”

Stubbs still has a few scars on her body. A finger isn’t fully functional.

>>RELATED | Richard Jewell’s ordeal detailed in new book on Olympic bombing

She thinks about all the things her mother taught her and what their future could have been. She makes sure her nieces, nephews and godchildren know about Hawthorne.

Her mother was very active in the community. She liked to mentor youth. A graduate of Albany State University, Hawthorne was a big supporter of HBCUs. She ran an ice cream and hot dog parlor that she named Fallon’s. It closed about three years after her death.

Her mother would drop little jewels about how to run a business, the importance of friends and building strong relationships.

Stubbs wonders if her mother taught her so much because she knew their time together was short.

“I try to honor my mother by being the person I am,” she said. “There is nothing my mother didn’t do for me and my sister for us to be great. I tell you, this was a woman ahead of her time.”