In a flash, the explosion of pipes and nails shattered Atlanta’s Olympics.
One moment, revelers at Centennial Olympic Park were grooving to the R&B tunes of Jack Mack & the Heart Attack. The next, an act of terrorism caused two deaths and injured more than 100 others.
The early morning bomb will forever stain the city’s moment on the world stage.
Memories of the games are tinged by off-the-field mayhem created by the bombing. Instead of a celebration of international unity through sports, the focus turned to investigations. The Olympics went on, but with a less celebratory and more somber mood.
It wasn’t until seven years later that the bomber, Eric Rudolph, was arrested as he was scrounging for food behind a discount supermarket in a small North Carolina town.
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“It changed everything as far as how the Olympics went,” said GBI agent Tom Davis, an assistant venue commander for the games. “It was a great time for the city of Atlanta, and then when the bomb happened, it changed the whole atmosphere. It was shocking that we had something like that.”
Events unfolded quickly in the minutes just before the bomb exploded around 1:20 a.m. on July 27, 1996.
Security guard Richard Jewell was having trouble with some college-age kids who were tossing their empty beer cans into a television camera tower, disturbing cameramen and others inside. He went to get another officer to assist him and found Davis.
When the two returned to the tower, Jewell spotted the backpack underneath a bench. The kids disappeared into the crowd, and Jewell thought they had left the backpack behind. Following protocol, they called for help with the abandoned backpack.
Two bomb specialists — agents from the ATF and FBI — soon arrived and looked at the backpack. They didn’t tell Davis what they saw, but they told him to evacuate the immediate area until a backup arrived. Law enforcement and security officers, including Davis and Jewell, formed a perimeter and moved nearby people away. Jewell also cleared the tower.
Then the bomb detonated, sending thousands of pieces of hot metal far beyond the perimeter and into the crowd.
“It was chaotic,” said Davis, who was hit by a piece of shrapnel. “It was just a huge explosion, a very loud explosion and a lot of heat. It forced me to the ground. I just saw people laying everywhere, many of them screaming and hurt severely.”
One of the people in the crowd was Donna McCaslin, who was sitting with two friends on a park bench. The blast sent shrapnel into her friend’s leg — narrowly missing the spot where McCaslin had bent her head to look in her bag seconds before.
“We saw people grabbing their body parts wherever they got hit. It was all such a blur. It happened so fast in a mass of people who were freaking out,” she said. “I constantly go back in my mind and say to myself, ‘I can’t believe I was there when it happened.’”
Steve Blackwell, a GBI agent, was helping to establish the safe zone with other law enforcement officers when he saw an orange-tinged flash and a puff of grey smoke out of the corner of his eye. The blast wave hit him immediately.
“I remember screaming and yelling and the sirens from the ambulances and police cars coming into the area. I remember propping up on my elbows and seeing a hole in my leg,” said Blackwell, whose leg was wounded by a couple of pieces of shrapnel. “The good that was supposed to be there was marred by this act of terror.
Nearby on the ground, he saw Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old spectator from Albany who was killed by the blast. Not far away, Turkish journalist Melih Uzunyol was rushing to the scene when he died of a heart attack.
Across the street at the Olympic operations center, Richard Stogner was eating a late dinner when the cafeteria rattled. Stogner, the deputy chief financial officer for the games and the duty officer that night, hurried upstairs to the balcony to see what had happened.
He saw clouds of smoke and people on the ground. Then he got on the phone and began coordinating disaster response.
“We focused on what happened, what was the cause of it, and what we were going to do about it.” Stogner said. “I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘This is going to hurt our image.’ We had to decide what to do to protect public safety.”
After talking with International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, officials decided to increase security and temporarily shut down Centennial Olympic Park, but to continue the games.
Three days later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article stating that Jewell was the focus of the federal investigation into the bombing. The FBI cleared Jewell 88 days later.
Jewell should be remembered as a hero not only for alerting police to the backpack, but also for saving people’s lives, said an attorney for his family, Lin Wood. After Jewell saw the ATF agent look into the backpack, he suspected there was a bomb, and he single-handedly evacuated more than two dozen people from the tower.
Jewell deserved an honorary gold medal, Wood said. Instead his life was ruined when he was wrongfully accused of planting the bomb.
“His heroism included putting his own life at risk to potentially save the lives of every individual that was in that tower,” Wood said. “Richard was cast in such a negative, villainous light. He was portrayed internationally as a villain and evil person who people suspected had committed the heinous act of a terrorist bombing.”
There was never any evidence against Jewell, and he wasn’t cleared in the eyes of many until Rudolph’s arrest, Wood said.
Jewell sued several media outlets and won settlements from NBC, the New York Post and CNN. A judge dismissed his lawsuit against the AJC, finding that the newspaper accurately reported he was a key suspect in the bombing. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the dismissal in 2012.
Jewell died at age 44 in 2007 from a heart attack brought on by heart disease and diabetes, according to medical officials.
Rudolph pleaded guilty in 2005 to a series of bombings, at Centennial Olympic Park, a lesbian bar in Atlanta and abortion clinics in Sandy Springs and Birmingham, Ala. He said in a statement that the Olympics bombing was meant to embarrass the United States government for sanctioning abortion.
He’s serving four life sentences in a Supermax federal prison near Florence, Colo.