Atlanta to relive one of its best, worst times with ‘Richard Jewell’

Director Clint Eastwood, left, and Paul Walter Hauser on the Atlanta set of “Richard Jewell,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. CLAIRE FOLGER/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.
Director Clint Eastwood, left, and Paul Walter Hauser on the Atlanta set of “Richard Jewell,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. CLAIRE FOLGER/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Calvin Thorbourne III and his friends were heading out of Centennial Olympic Park when the ground shook and the sky lit up.

“Man, let’s get out of here, y’all,” he remembers saying that summer night in 1996. He noticed one of his buddies bleeding and started looking around for help. Then another sensation gripped him.

“I thought, ‘My leg feels really weird,’” he said. “I looked down and there was blood on the outside of the jeans. I was hit on the left leg. They came to treat my leg. I was thinking, ‘My right leg feels a little funny.’ That injury looked worse than the left one.’”

The bomb Eric Robert Rudolph hid under a bench in the park left Thorbourne’s right leg permanently scarred. Shrapnel remains in his left leg. The ordeal left him rattled.

“Anytime there was a crowd, it made me a little more aware,” he said. “I had a little bit of post traumatic stress.”

The physical and emotional injuries Rudolph inflicted more than two decades ago are on the minds of many, with the movie “Richard Jewell” hitting theaters on Friday.

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A security guard assigned to Centennial Olympic Park during the Games, Jewell alerted authorities and hustled to get spectators out of harm’s way when he saw the unattended bag that turned out to contain explosives. The blast killed Alice Hawthorne of Albany and Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol suffered a fatal heart attack while rushing to the scene, but Jewell’s quick action saved countless lives.

Within days, though, investigators came to focus on Jewell as a suspect. They questioned him, searched his and his mother’s belongings and kept him under surveillance for months before publicly announcing he’d been cleared.

This was a very tragic moment in American history,” director Clint Eastwood said during red carpet interviews at the November Hollywood premiere, according to footage provided by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. “For somebody to expend a great deal of energy to save lives, then he turns around and gets accused of being the villain.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was first to report, accurately, that authorities were focusing on Jewell days after the bombing. Investigators questioned him, searched his and his mother’s belongings and kept him under surveillance for months. The AJC was among the media outlets sued after Jewell was exonerated, and the only one that didn’t settle. Litigation naming the AJC was dismissed in 2011, when the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.”

Rudolph pleaded guilty to a number of bombings in 2005 and drew four life sentences without the possibility of parole. Jewell died two years later, of heart failure due to complications from diabetes. His mother, Bobi Jewell, consulted on the film and attended the red carpet premiere.

“I know this means the world to her for the world to know that Richard is a hero,” said Kathy Bates, who plays Bobi Jewell in the film.

Paul Walter Hauser stars in the title role.

“Hopefully, it will stir some conversation to make us all careful about how we investigate things like this or the omission of investigation,” he said during red carpet interviews at the premiere. “I hope this movie is another healthy wake-up call while being an entertaining story.”

The movie is based on a Vanity Fair article and a recently published book, “The Suspect,” by longtime journalist Kevin Salwen and former federal prosecutor Kent Alexander.

“I kept a journal because there was so much going on,” said Alexander, who recalled listening to radio news updates on the drive to and from work, the case utterly consuming him. “It was very strange to be going into the inside of this, with all the speculation on the outside. The overwhelming fear I had was, this bomber’s going to strike again.”

Tiffany Fessler was a Gainesville Times sports reporter two years out of college in 1996. For her, the bombing meant a quick pivot from coverage of kayaking, canoeing and rowing events on Lake Lanier. Her repertoire suddenly expanded to writing about fans’ and athletes’ reactions amid stepped up security as competition continued.

“It changed the tenor, even at the lake. People were more somber, more thoughtful,” she said. “I don’t know if scared is the right word but people were wondering, is something going to happen here?”

Still, she has happy memories of the Atlanta Games. After weeks of 12-hour days, she took some time to enjoy the event in her off hours. Even after the bombing, she visited Centennial Olympic Park for fun.

“It was such a community,” said Fessler, who now works in public relations. “Whether you could understand everybody or not, it was about enjoying having the world visit Atlanta.”

Longtime Atlanta sports and publicity honcho Bob Hope also looks back with fondness.

“It was an incredible celebration,” he said. “It was ours. It was family. Everyone in Atlanta was in some way involved.”

The co-founder of the Hope-Beckham public relations firm and former head of publicity for the Atlanta Braves, he’s been involved in a number of Olympics. He’s a hometown booster, yes, but says the Atlanta Games were special.

“It gave an emotional uplift to our city,” he said. In going after the international event, he said, Atlanta proved “it’s a city that’s willing to chase anything it thinks is great. We’re not going to play second fiddle to anyone.”

The movie, though, is bringing back difficult memories for some who lived through the Games and the bombing. Nicholas Wolaver moved to Atlanta right after college for a job with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The gig was exciting if inelegant at times. He'll never forget where he was when things took a terrible turn.

“I was plunging a toilet in a German athlete’s room when the bomb exploded,” he said. “We looked at the German athlete. She looked at us. We were kind of like, ‘What was that? Did we break the toilet?’ About five minutes later as we walked back out my colleague and I noticed security was very busy. There were guns drawn. You could tell something was up, we just didn’t know what.”

In the pre-email, pre-Twitter era he eventually got the news from television, then started checking in with family, friends and colleagues. He didn’t unstop any more toilets that night.

“Eventually some of the managers got called to come work as extra hands at entry points,” he said. “We went home exhausted and wondering, are we going to come to work tomorrow and have the Games continue?”

The Olympics went on, even as unease lingered and security was tightened.

“On the Closing Ceremony day a lot of us were recruited to ride with the athletes to help get them in, then get them back after the ceremony was over,” Wolaver said. An Oklahoma native, his father was a federal employee who worked near where Timothy McVeigh (executed in 2001) struck in 1995.

“I remember having a conversation with my parents. They were concerned, like, ‘Is it good to stay in Atlanta? Is that the right place for you to be?” Wolaver said. “Obviously, I stayed.”

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