The Dream Turns To Nightmare

A pipe bomb explodes in Centennial Olympic Park, shattering the Games' celebratory mood and emphasizing America's vulnerability.

IT WAS AN ORDINARY GREEN KNAPSACK, LYING ON the ground at a rock concert. At almost any other time or place in America, anyone who saw it would probably think: gee, what kind of stupid kid leaves his pack lying around like that? But not in Atlanta last week, and perhaps not anywhere else in America for some time to come. When Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Tom Davis spotted it in Centennial Olympic Park at around 1 a.m. Saturday, he treated it like the emergency it was, even though suspicious packages had been turning up in the park all week at the rate of four or five a day: calling for assistance, clearing the area, struggling against a tide of indifferent and, in some cases, drunk humanity that didn't see why their party should be disrupted. Minutes later, the pipe bomb inside detonated with a blast that blew Davis off his feet and sent shrapnel flying for 100 yards, killing one woman and injuring more than a hundred. The Olympic Village at Centennial Park was, by design, the one Olympic site where anyone could just walk in, without showing a ticket or passing through a metal detector, a venue for splashing in fountains, swapping pins and participating in the most democratic of all pastimes, shopping. For a week it had been packed until late in the night, but last Saturday it was dark and empty, except for detectives sifting through the residue of bombs and shrapnel.

Whatever else the Atlanta Games will eventually be known for, they will go down in history for this, the first fatal terror attack directed at civilians--and, therefore, at the Olympics themselves, rather than the athletes of a particular country. Coming just nine days after an explosion brought down a TWA flight leaving New York, and a little more than a year after the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, the blast was further evidence to Americans that their long immunity from domestic terrorism has ended--just in time to compensate psychologically for the decline in murder rates in many big cities. Already last week reporters were running out of bystanders to say in tones of wounded innocence: "I didn't think it could happen here."

But it would take more than a pipe bomb to stop, or even slow, the Games. There is too much hope and pride--and money--at stake. For that matter, the 30,000-strong security contingent had rehearsed for threats up to and including a nuclear attack using stolen reactor fuel. "To let whoever did this get away with this and cancel the Games, that would be absurd," said that well-known spokesman for American values, Charles Barkley, who at that point still had five games to play in. So, with the Olympic flag at half-staff, and spirits further dampened by a gray and drizzly sky, the preliminaries of the men's 50-meter free rifle event got off as scheduled just seven hours later, the start of a full day of events marked by the crowning of a new world's fastest human (Donovan Bailey, who set a new world record in the men's 100-meter) and Gail Devers's second Olympic gold medal in the woman's 100-meter race. "It's a time for me to be joyous about what I did," Devers said later. "But it's also a time for sadness."

Who would want to blow up the Olympics, anyway? Not, presumably, any of the 197 delegations at the Games, including Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Palestine. In a memo to national field offices last month, FBI officials noted that, in the absence of specific terrorist threats, the biggest security concern at the Games came from Atlanta's street gangs, who are considered capable of almost anything. Bomb threats had been received "all during the Olympics," according to an official of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which shares jurisdiction with the FBI in this area; none turned out to be authentic. But at almost the same time that Davis was noticing the package on the ground, an unidentified caller to 911--a white American male by the sound of his voice, according to officials--warned that a bomb would go off in Centennial Park within 30 minutes. That, and the use of a pipe bomb--augmented by screws and nails packed in a plastic freezer container--pointed to a case of homegrown terrorism. Foreign terrorists are much more likely to use high-powered plastic explosives, which are easier to smuggle and conceal, but federal officials estimate that 60 percent of American bombings use black powder or other homemade explosives packed in plumbing pipe. It is, says one veteran federal investigator, "the American way of bombing."

To some observers, the episode brought to mind the arrests in April of two Georgia militia members (dubbed the "UnaBubbas" by the local media) on charges of conspiracy and possession of unregistered explosive devices. But officials at the time said the group's only connection to the Olympics was that they expected to get blamed if anyone else set off a bomb there, and in any case the two were still in jail last week. Still, if there was a political agenda to last week's attack, one logical place to look was the militia movement, which is rife with paranoid fantasies about America's surrendering its sovereignty to a "New World Order." "In their eyes, the New World Order is the Olympic Games," says Harry Brandon, a former top FBI official who had helped plan for security at the Atlanta Games.

As Olympic officials did not hasten to point out, the tragedy could have been much worse. Davis, who narrowly escaped serious injury himself when his heavily laminated credentials stopped a piece of shrapnel that was heading straight for his rear end, got a lot of the credit for clearing the area of most spectators. But the unsung, if inadvertent, heroes were two or three drunks who caused a minor disturbance near the stage at which a band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was performing. The Dream Team had won its fourth basketball game against China only an hour or so earlier, and the park was crowded. A security guard called for help; by the time GBI agent Davis arrived, the men were gone, but the backpack was visible near the base of one of the speaker towers. (Authorities were looking for the drunks, along with anyone else who might have seen what happened there that night, but did not consider them suspects.) It was just around this time that the warning was phoned in to 911, apparently from a pay phone only a block or two away from the park. But Davis didn't know about the phone call, and presumably no one at police headquarters had been alerted to his routine discovery; if anyone had been in a position to put the two facts together, the area could have been evacuated immediately. Instead, Davis followed procedure, which was to call for a bomb "diagnostic team," consisting of one FBI agent and one from ATF. Only after they arrived, several minutes later, and found three sealed pipes and wires inside the backpack, did officers begin to clear the grassy patch around the speaker tower of an estimated "75 to 100" partyers.

By then, eight officers were on the scene, but the evacuation went slowly, partly because of the need to walk a line between urgency and panic. "We were asking them to get off the grass, saying we didn't know if the device was real," Davis said. "Some were intoxicated and some were belligerent." Alice S. Hawthorne, a 44-year-old mother of two daughters from Albany, Ga., was standing about 40 yards away when the bomb went off at 1:20. By misfortune--others who were much closer were relatively unscathed--she suffered extensive shrapnel wounds and died on the spot. A 40-year-old cameraman for Turkish television, Melih Uzunyol, suffered a heart attack while running to film the disaster and died at the hospital. Most of the injuries were minor.

Dawn Saturday found the park deserted, but full of litter--an unusual sight in Atlanta. And the investigation was in full swing, with hundreds of law-enforcement officials on the case under the direction of the FBI. Tapes from surveillance cameras in and around the park were being studied. Forensic experts converged on the telephone to which the 911 call was traced, checking for fingerprints and footprints. The remains of the bomb were gathered from the scene (and from the hospitals where bits of shrapnel were removed from victims' bodies) and flown to the FBI crime lab in Washington. This caused some resentment among ATF agents who have their own bomb laboratory in Atlanta. Explosives experts say that pipe bombs generally leave a lot of clues behind, in the form of both chemical residue and fragments of the casing, unlike more sophisticated explosives that burn almost completely. On the other hand, the materials are so common--plumbing pipe and gunpowder or black powder--that they can be almost impossible to trace. Pipe is a pretty anonymous product, although sometimes the endcaps that bombers (and plumbers) use as seals contain embossed codes that can help determine where they were made and sold. "The less sophisticated the bomb, the less it says about the maker," an FBI explosives expert told NEWSWEEK. Of course, the converse--that a very complex and distinctive mechanism reveals much about the person who made it--turned out not to be of much practical use in tracking down the Unabomber.

It is significant, officials say, that the bomber chose Centennial Park, which was deliberately left open--"like a tethered goat," according to one security consultant who is critical of some of the Atlanta preparations. To have attacked one of the main athletic sites--or even such remote venues as Lake Lanier, 50 miles from Atlanta, where frogmen sweep the bottom for mines before each rowing event--would have required far more planning. Brian Levin, former associate director of the Militia Task Force at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says that while people have been paying attention to explosions like the one that nearly destroyed the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, there has also been a significant increase in low-level bombings around the country--"the kind that blows up your ex-wife's car or an FBI office."

Not a happy thought. On the other hand, Americans are a resilient people, as are tourists of all nationalities, and by the time the sun came out Saturday afternoon the mood was turning festive again. In Atlanta, streets closed for security reasons turned into open-air theaters for acrobats, and sidewalk vendors were doing their best business of the week among hordes of restless tourists shut out of Centennial Park. At one downtown hotel, hundreds of guests dutifully filed into the streets at midnight in response to a bomb warning, one of scores the Atlanta police had to contend with. And on television, the replays of the blast gave way to beach volleyball and diving, and the pyrotechnic trailer for the movie "Chain Reaction" gave frequent, tasteless reminders that explosions can be deadly, but also fun. From President Clinton on down to the lowliest T-shirt peddler, the lesson of the bombing was the same: the Games must go on, and so, by extension, must Life. Just remember to keep checking under your seat.

RESEARCH BY DANTE CHINNI, BRAD STONE.

Early Saturday morning, a crude pipe bomb rocked downtown Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Prak, the first terrorist attack at the Olympics since the 1972 Games, in Munich. As victims were rushed to area hospitals, authorities began to piece together details of the incident. The attack wounded about 100 people, but the spirit of the Games survived.

Treated and released: 5

Treated and released: 37; admitted: 5

Treated and released: 10; admitted: 24; deaths: 1, Melih Uzunyol

Treated and released: 12; admitted: 4

Deaths: 1, Alice S. Hawthorne

Typically 3 to 5 inches in diameter and 6 to 12 inches in length. Made from cast iron pipes, the bombs fragment easily and are filled with an explosive material like black powder or gunpowder.

In this particular bomb, nails and screws in a Tupperware container were placed in a knapsack with three pipe bombs taped together. The device likely had a timing mechanism connected to a battery.

Rock band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack begin playing on the AT&T Global Olympic Village concert stage. The audience is spread across grass and walkways.

A guard at the concert stage observes a green knapsack lying near a light-and-sound tower. He tells an agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who examines the parcel and calls in a bomb-diagnosis team.

A male with no discernible accent calls 911 and warns of an impending explosion n Centennial Park in 30 minutes.

The bomb-diagnosis team, an FBI agent and an ATF agent in the park observe pipes and wires within the knapsack. With nearby state troopers, they begin to clear the area of people.

The pipe bomb detonates, spraying nails and screws as far as 100 yards. The blast injures about 100 and is responsible for two deaths.

SOURCE: ACOG, area hospitals, Fulton County Medical Examiner, "YOU SAW THE BLOOD AND KNEW IT WAS A BOMB'

ON-SCENER: The band was playing "Time Is on My Side.' It wasn't. The seconds ticked off, and a lethal spray of shrapnel shot into the crowd.

IT WAS SHORTLY AFTER 1 a.m. and downtown Atlanta was jammed with happy revelers enjoying the free rock concerts around Centennial Olympic Park. Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, a rock band from Denver, were onstage at the AT&T Pavilion, while across Techwood Drive, a competing band blasted out "Time Is on My Side." It wasn't. Unknown to everyone, including the dozen or so cops who were even then moving the audience away from the side of the stage, the bomb in the green knapsack was ticking down the last seconds to its detonation. The bomb went off with a blue flash, an earth-shaking boom and a cloud of gunpowder smoke, sending a lethal spray of shrapnel slicing through the crowd.

An appalling silence fell over Olympic Park and, for a few brief seconds, almost no one could absorb the horror of what had just happened. Robert Gee of Scottsdale, Ariz., caught the blast on videotape and thought it was merely "pyrotechnics"--then realized the explosion had been far too big. "I think folks thought it was part of the show," said John Bernard, an AT&T employee. "Then you saw all these people lying on the ground, and the blood, and you knew it was some kind of bomb or something." More than 100 people, including eight of the police officers who had been working to move the audience out of danger, lay in clumps among the stunned and disbelieving onlookers--and 44-year-old Alice Hawthorne of Albany, Ga., was dead. "I saw the cop right in front of me take a huge piece of shrapnel," said Mark Smith, a sound technician for the rock show. "He got hit bad. One guy threw a towel on his head. I poured water on him to wash away some of the blood. He was lying face down and he wasn't moving."

Across the park, 19-year-old Jason Sanders felt the force of the blast and looked up to see "chaos--glass flying, people being being trampled, cops telling everybody to leave right away. If you were anywhere within 100 feet, you felt it." Jeff Mitchell, farther away, heard "a muffled explosion, like it was inside something." Then "a man in front of me dropped to his knees and fell to the ground. I thought, I don't even want to know what's going on over there." Mary Deckert of Atlanta felt something whiz past her head and turned to see a man behind her get hit. Her husband, Ed, saw another man "with shrapnel all across his face and all across his chest."

Some in the crowd panicked, trampling others as they ran out of the park and into nearby streets. Reporters and news photographers sprinted toward the carnage, and a cameraman for Turkish television, Melih Uzunyol, suffered a fatal heart attack in the scramble. Police and federal agents flooded into the park, pushing the crowd back, as sirens wailed in the distance and volunteers tended to the injured. A tough-talking federal agent yelled at the newsies. "Are you crazy?" he said. "Another bomb could go off--now get out of here!"

Nearby, three people tried to calm a hysterical woman victim lying on a bench with her thigh ripped open. "We knew it was a bomb--we were moving people out," a federal officer growled. "We were securing the area and it exploded. We had ATF people in here, they were getting ready to defuse it and they got hit. Look at my shirt--I was close enough to get blood on me."

Terrorism had marred the festival mood and no one who saw the tragedy in Olympic Park will ever forget it. But the Games go on, as they should. At the Olympic Stadium the next morning, U.S. hammer-thrower Lance Deal said he wouldn't let the bombing "wreck what this is all about" and vowed to go for the gold the next night. And afterward, Deal said, "I'm going to get mad"--like everyone else who honors the Olympic spirit.

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