A Shadow On The Olympics Games Go On In Atlanta After Blast At Concert A Woman Was Killed And 111 People Injured. Police Got A Warning Call. Investigators Focused On Domestic Suspects.

Posted: July 28, 1996

ATLANTA — The shadow of terrorism, absent for 24 years, fell across the Olympics yesterday.

And for the second time in two weeks, swarms of federal investigators picked through the rubble of a deadly explosion that tore at Americans' sense of well-being.

This one was responsible for two deaths and more than 100 injuries, but the Atlanta Games proceeded as scheduled, before somber crowds that observed a moment of silence at each site as flags flew at half-staff.

A crude, homemade pipe bomb loaded with screws and nails exploded shortly after 1 a.m. yesterday amid thousands of late-night revelers at a rock concert in Centennial Olympic Park, in the shadow of three major Olympic facilities and the one Olympic area not subject to stringent security measures.

No one took responsibility for the blast, but authorities said their investigation focused on a call made to Atlanta's 911 emergency system at approximately 1:07 a.m. yesterday, warning of an explosion in a half-hour. Woody Johnson, the FBI's special agent in charge of Olympic security, said the caller appeared to be a white American male who spoke calmly and with no discernible accent. Johnson said the call had been traced to a bank of pay telephones about two blocks from the park.

The blast occurred about 18 minutes later, after a ``suspicious package'' had been discovered in a crowded area of the park near a concert stage. The crowd had been evacuated, likely preventing additional casualties.

By midmorning, federal agents in charge of the investigation had termed the bombing a terrorist act, the first one to target the Olympics since 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after a raid by Palestinian commandos on their quarters at the Olympic Village in Munich.

With security tightened to smothering levels, with gun-toting soldiers and bomb-sniffing dogs on patrol amid a heightened sense of anxiety, the Games went determinedly on. All 18 sports went off as scheduled, officials said, and 90 percent of the available seats were filled.

Only Centennial Park was closed as a task force of federal investigators combed the blast area for clues. President Clinton issued an angry denunciation of the ``cowardly act'' from Washington.

``We cannot let terror win,'' Clinton said in the same somber, determined tones he used for public reassurance after terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building. ``We will track those responsible down. We will bring them to justice.''

While the FBI's Johnson declined to discuss details of the investigation, CNN quoted anonymous federal authorities as saying their focus is on domestic suspects, with three distinct possibilities raised: a lone ``nut case,'' a white separatist skinhead group or an anti-government militia. They said they did not suspect a link between this bombing and the July 17 crash of TWA Flight 800 into the Atlantic off New York's Kennedy Airport, in which terrorism is suspected.

Johnson said several areas of inquiry might yield evidence. He said tapes from surveillance cameras posted throughout the park were being examined, and one of three pipes used to make the bomb remained intact and had been recovered.

The euphoria of the Games' first week gave way to sadness and anxiety throughout Atlanta. Downtown, security officials responded to 35 telephoned bomb threats before 10:30 a.m. yesterday.

Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the Olympics' boxing venue on the Georgia Tech campus, was evacuated twice. Underground Atlanta, an enclave of shops, clubs and eateries popular with tourists, was evacuated in late afternoon, then reopened. Edgy Atlanta police evacuated hundreds of people from a shopping mall and an adjacent subway station before blowing up a suspicious package that turned out to contain a clothes iron.

The security in place at various Olympic sites was almost suffocating as officials sought to beef up the measures they imposed after the TWA plane crash on July 17, just two days before the Atlanta Games began.

The woman killed in the Saturday morning blast was identified as Alice S. Hawthorne, 44, an Olympics visitor from Albany, Ga. A Turkish newsman, Melih Uzunyol, 40, died of an apparent heart attack while running to film the aftermath of the explosion.

Among the 111 people injured was Hawthorne's 14-year-old daughter, Fallon, who suffered puncture wounds to her arm and leg. Eleven of those reported injured remained hospitalized yesterday, and two underwent surgery for shrapnel wounds, according to Atlanta emergency medical officials. Most of those injured suffered minor cuts and bruises from flying debris.

Security officials speculated that there would have been more casualties if agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation hadn't ordered an evacuation of the area where the bomb was placed moments before it detonated. Those agents, who had not been informed of the telephone warning, acted after discovering a ``green-colored backpack'' at the foot of a four-story mixing tower from which sound and lighting for the adjacent concert stage were controlled.

``When we could not establish ownership of the package, we called it suspicious,'' agent Steve Blackwell said. An assessment team of FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents was called in to examine the parcel, and security guards began clearing the area.

``Approximately 23 minutes'' after the parcel was discovered, Blackwell said, ``a tremendous, powerful explosion'' shook the concert-stage area and was felt several blocks away.

``When it went off, it was very well felt by everyone in the area,'' Blackwell said. ``A lot of people were on the ground screaming. A lot of people were severely injured.''

The device, described as a ``crude, black-powder pipe bomb'' by federal investigators, was packed with screws, nails and other bits of material that became dangerous missiles when launched by the explosion. Deadly shards of corrugated metal from the damaged tower and jagged chunks torn from a cyclone fence also flew through the air.

The post-explosion scene was one of mass confusion, but the cries of the wounded and the blood they had shed refuted the notion that the blast was a pyrotechnic feature of the performance by Jack Mac and the Heart Attack, the band whose Centennial Park concert was interrupted.

Emergency medical teams were at the scene in minutes, and a convoy of 30 ambulances began transporting the wounded to three nearby hospitals.

Around 5 a.m. the International Olympic Committee announced its decision to proceed with the Games. Clinton, who had attended last Friday's Opening Ceremonies and the gymnastics competition with his family barely 24 hours before the blast, endorsed the decision. He said it was vital that the Olympic movement ``not capitulate to terrorists'' and called the bombing ``an evil act of terror . . . and cowardice that stands in sharp contrast to the courage of the Olympic athletes.''

``The Olympics will continue,'' Clinton said. ``The Games will go on. The Olympic spirit will prevail. We must be firm in this. We cannot be intimidated by acts of terror.''

Officials ordered sweeps of each Olympic venue as security approached martial-law levels at some. Navy SEALS were in the water off the rowing course at Lake Lanier, and machine gun-wielding soldiers patrolled the shore and grandstand and manned security checkpoints.

Buses leaving the athletes' quarters at the Olympic Village were delayed an hour or more by the increased safety measures. Athletes, who normally move quickly through security checkpoints, were subjected to thorough searches by guards with handheld metal detectors at each venue.

Hundreds of spectators arriving early for boxing competition at Alexander Memorial Coliseum were kept waiting two blocks away from the site after a suspicious package was discovered. After they were allowed into the building, two bomb threats forced two seperate evacuations.

Elsewhere, spectators endured even longer lines and longer waits at the various venues. After passing through airport-style metal detectors, they had their belongings searched by security guards.

``You know that wherever you are, something might happen,'' said Zeck Moteiri, 45, of Kenya. ``The security here has been the maximum. They've done everything that was possible to protect us.

``Sometimes, it just happens,'' he said.

The rain that fell intermittently in the Atlanta area appeared to have more of an impact on attendance than fear of additional violence. Crowds were down slightly at the outdoor facilities, with the exception of the sold-out track stadium, which was the site of such high-profile events as the men's and women's 100-meter dashes. Near-capacity turnouts were reported at most of the indoor arenas, and overall attendance was 90 percent of capacity for yesterday's schedule, said A.D. Frazier, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Missing, however, was the anticipation, the festive spirit of good will that had characterized the first week of the Games. For the most part, the crowds stood in grim-faced silence as they waited in line, quietly skeptical of Mayor Bill Campbell's pronouncement that Atlanta was ``still the safest place on the globe.''

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|