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An oral history of the bombing that rocked the 1996 Atlanta Games

The Atlanta Olympics -- the Centennial Games -- opened the night of July 19, 1996, when Janet Evans passed the torch to Muhammad Ali, who lit the cauldron in one of the most indelible moments in Olympic history. The first week of competition saw plenty more highlights amid traffic congestion and tiring commercialism.

Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven won team gymnastics gold in the Georgia Dome on July 23. Amy Van Dyken bagged four swimming golds, the last coming on July 26, the final night of swimming at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. At about 1:20 a.m. on July 27, the Olympics were shaken by an attack. A bomb exploded at the social center of the Games, Centennial Olympic Park, a melting-pot entertainment area without the security restrictions or admission charges of the rest of the venues. Two people died as a result -- Alice Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Ga., and Melih Uzunyol, 40, a Turkish cameraman -- and more than 100 people were injured.

This is the story of that night from those who lived through it, including Eric R. Rudolph, the North Carolina man who pleaded guilty to the Olympic park attack. He is serving a life sentence and spoke with SI.com by phone in May.

John Hawthorne (Alice Hawthorne's husband): [My daughter] Fallon [Stubbs] wanted to hear this group called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. How she even knew anything about Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, I have no idea. But that's what she wanted to do, and as part of her extended birthday celebration, they [Fallon and her mother, Alice Hawthorne] went on to Atlanta [from Albany, Ga.]. I thought about going on up that night, but I said, "Well, I'll just wait because I've been on the road all day." I decided to wait and go the next morning. We were going to spend the rest of the weekend in Atlanta.

Jim Lampley (NBC Sports anchor): We had [U.S. swimmer] Gary Hall on that particular night. He was the heartthrob of the Olympics. Our production operation is very heavily populated with young women. A lot of them are college age or close to college age. They're runners. They're researchers. They're there as volunteers. There's an army of them. Lots of people in the broadcast center had spent periods of time strategizing as to how they could be near the late-night studio or in the vicinity of the late-night studio or even in our control room at the moment when Gary Hall came in. So it had already been an interesting evening.

Ron Rollins (Dayton [Ohio] Daily News Arts and Entertainment editor): I wasn't supposed to be covering it. It was a complete accident that I was there. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is also a Cox [Media Group] paper, and they were doing so many extra editions and they were bulking up the paper and their coverage so much that they borrowed like a substantial number of reporters and editors and photographers and artists from all the other Cox papers in the country, even the little ones. It was me and another guy from the Dayton Daily News, Pat Rini. And a guy from a small paper we owned in Grand Junction, Colo., Perry Patrick. We just happened to be working until midnight or 12:30 that night and all got off at the same time.

Perry Patrick (Grand Junction [Colo.] Daily Sentinel copy editor and page designer): We were just kind of walking along, making our way towards the park, people watching, just chatting with folks.

Hannah Storm (NBC Sports anchor): I was probably four-and-a-half, five months pregnant. I remember being really hot and just really worn out. I had taken a frozen lemonade, and I was literally rubbing the frozen lemonade like all over my forehead and my face to try to cool off.

Tim Scott (Jack Mack and the Heart Attack bassist): This was one of the coolest gigs I've ever done. It was a huge, huge event. People from all over the world were there. We're playing for anywhere from 10 to 15 thousand people a night. Beautiful weather in the summer. It was just a really cool, fun thing.

Bill Bergman (Jack Mack and the Heart Attack saxophonist): We were supposed to play every night, and we would come on after Brian Setzer or Santana or whatever, and we would play from, I don't know, 10 to 12 at night or something. The other bands, the bigger acts, I guess, if you want to call it that, played from 8 to 10.

Scott: I think we were just getting ready to start a new song. I remember, our lead singer, T.C., it was his face on the great, big Panasonic screen behind us.

Janet Evans (U.S. Olympic swimmer): I was at a party thrown for me by Swatch, a retirement party for me. Brad Bridgewater, who was a swimmer. He had won the gold in the 200 backstroke. He was there, and he had his gold medal with him.

Brad Bridgewater (U.S. Olympic swimmer): There's a video. Janet was giving an interview with a German reporter, I think.

Evans: He [the reporter] was asking me about my retirement. He was asking me if I was disappointed with how I swum. He was asking me about Franziska van Almsick. At the time, she was probably the most famous German swimmer. He wanted to know what I thought of how she was swimming. I was just a few words into my answer ...

Jim Gray (NBC Sports reporter): I was at the top of the Renaissance hotel where we were all staying. Dick Ebersol came and grabbed me and said, "You're going with me."

Eric Rudolph(confessed and convicted Olympic park bomber):The plan was to clear the park, and hopefully after clearing the park and the explosion, this would create a state of instability in Atlanta, potentially shut the Games down or at least eat into the profits that the Games were going to make. The idea was to use them as warning devices, not to target people. ... In retrospect, it was a poor decision.

Rudolph: I got into the park a little after 11 p.m., I guess. The idea was to wait there until the park cleared a little bit after 1 a.m. and then go ahead and place it in front of the video tower. ... There were like thousands of people taking pictures, and one of them happened to kneel down right in front of me and snap my face with the fountain in the background, and so I had to push up the schedule. I was a little jittery. I made my way to the benches, sat down when it was clear. I planted the bomb, had a 55-minute timer.

Rudolph said he made two 911 calls, both detailed in Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph and the Legacy of American Terror by Maryanne Vollers. The first came at 12:46 a.m., 34 minutes before the bomb exploded. "Can you understand me?" Rudolph asked. When the female operator said yes, he continued, "You defy the order of the militia ..." Before he finished, the operator hung up.

Rudolph: I was forced to find a new phone [assuming the first call had been traced]. By that time, a lot of time had expired.

The second call came in at 12:58 a.m. "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes," Rudolph said.

Tommy Tomlinson (Georgia State Patrol captain, Centennial Olympic Park venue commander): I think Rudolph had called in, said there's a bomb in Centennial Park. That message, that phone call, was never conveyed to law enforcement on the site. We never heard that until after.

Tom Davis (Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent): I was making one last pass through the park. I had been there probably 15, 16 hours already that day. As I walked by the NBC tower, [security guard] Richard Jewell flagged me down and told me he was having some problems with some drunks throwing beer cans into the NBC tower. Richard points down to a green backpack. It took us several minutes to check around to see if we could determine who the bag belonged to, and of course no one claimed it. I called our bomb diagnostics team.

Steve Zellers (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF] certified explosive specialist): I got a radio call for some suspicious activity near the sound stage, the speakers there, so my partner and I meandered over there, talked to the security people, and they pointed out to us a backpack.

Rudolph: Once I [made a second 911 call], I got above what's called Harris Street there where I could see the park. I seen these two guys down on the ground with the bomb pulled out, and I said, "Oh, thank God. They are pretty quick."

Zellers: When I opened the package, lifted a flap, with my flashlight I looked inside. I could see some wiring and some pipe and endcaps and some plastic containers and stuff like that.

Tomlinson: A quick peek. He didn't like what he saw.

Zellers: It was the first time I've ever sat down on a package and saw a live explosive device.

Rudolph: They're looking in the pack with a light, and I figure, OK, they've clipped the circuit wires. I'm pretty good now.

Davis: One of them unzipped part of it, peeked into the end of the bag and then crawled back up and came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my cellphone.

Rudolph: They had a pretty good perimeter pushed back, and I figured, OK, they've got it disarmed now.

Zellers: The way we're trained, when you see a device like that, leave it in place. Let the bomb squad come and take care of it. We called it in.

We bring you back live to the International Broadcast Center in Atlanta right now, and the mood of our program changes dramatically at this moment because, quite apparently, the kind of incident which you hope will never take place at an Olympic Games has, in fact, taken place ... -- Jim Lampley on NBC, about 1:35 a.m. ET, July 27, 1996

Rudolph: I expected when it did detonate that nobody except security personnel would be in that park. I had no idea they were going to leave the park full of people.

Zellers: The device detonated. There was complete silence. Absolute silence.

Evans: Before you heard the noise, you felt the building shake.

Nearly a thousand white-hot pieces of pipe, clock, battery, and nails were sent hurtling through the air and into the crowd, each shot from the epicenter of the blast at more than 3,000 feet per second, faster than a thousand speeding bullets.

Rollins: We look up, and there's this mushroom cloud of smoke.

Patrick Rini (Dayton [Ohio] Daily News copy editor): The noise was unmistakable. It was bad. Something evil had happened.

Evans: You heard shaking, and you heard glass breaking, and you heard screaming.

Rollins: Holy f---, that was an explosion. ... It was huge, and it was resonant. And it echoed very hugely because we were surrounded by tall buildings.

Bergman: All the microphones picked up the volume of the bomb as well. So between the heat blast that pushed us back and just the incredible loudness of it, it was pretty terrifying.

Rini: I remember the sound. You know how when you're at the Fourth of July fireworks, and they set off the last few? Or, I grew up going to Cleveland Stadium as an Indians fan. When somebody hit a home run, they blew off that big, concussive firework. Not the one that showers really pretty colors, but the one that just bangs.

Chris Myers (ESPN anchor): I think I was voicing over boxing results over a graphic. ... We heard this loud pop, this boom sound. There were people and activity below us. My assumption was -- my back turned to that area, going over the results -- that this is fireworks or something. This is a party going on.

Evans: I thought it was an earthquake because I'm a California person.

Zellers: We were close enough to feel the blast pressure wave. You feel it blow against your hair, make your hair move.

Rini: The hair went up on your arms. We looked at each other, and then you see people just flying out of the park. It's like, this is not good. This is something.

Tomlinson: We knew right off what it was. There was no doubt what it was. People going down. People injured. A lot of officers injured. It was sort of chaos. I don't know any other way to describe it.

Davis: The bomb exploded right behind us. ... It forced me to the ground. ... I did catch a piece of shrapnel in my hip.

Scott: I saw some of the debris flying up on the stage. ... I saw a piece of it go by the drummer. I think it grazed his arm. We were far enough away and high enough up that nothing came up there with any velocity. The nails and stuff, that was all embedded in the wood. It looked like confetti.

Quite frankly, this is a nightmare. ... -- Hannah Storm on NBC, about 1:50 a.m. ET, July 27, 1996

Tomlinson: Everything was moving at super speed.

Rini: A minute later, there are sirens going off.

Rudolph: I went with everybody else. Everybody else kind of stood around for a few minutes, and then once, I guess, word came through the crowd that it was an explosion of some sort, it was like panic, pandemonium.

Storm: My producer, a guy named Michael Bass, at the time, said very calmly, get back on the set. We had just finished wrapping. So Jim Lampley and I both went back to the set. We were like, "What's going on?" Well, there's been a bomb, and there's been an explosion at Olympic Park.

Lampley: You literally become two people at the moment that it happens. And one of you is the internal person, and that's the human being who somewhere inside you is entitled to an emotional response and to kind of an evaluative moment about what it means, how big it is, how frightening it is. But that's totally internal and suppressed because the part which must rise to the fore here is the television performer. And the television performer is necessarily mechanical. You have to, sort of instinctively, suppress emotions, suppress a lot of what goes on inside and create what amounts to a veneer.

Storm: We didn't use the word "bomb." We were really, really careful not to use the word "bomb" because we didn't know what it was.

Tomlinson: You didn't have to tell a lot of people. Of course, when they realized it was a bomb, they started fleeing to the exits.

Scott: They started rushing us off the stage real quick. The realization, it didn't take long to sink in.

Bergman: I literally held my saxophone above my head and ran. Everyone scurried like cockroaches in a New York apartment.

Evans: We went down the stairs of the pavilion and out into the open area in Centennial Park. There were people on the ground.

Zellers: One of the police officers got a chunk of his leg taken off from the debris.

Rini: I'd never seen, uh, I'd never seen a dead body before. So we're standing right next to somebody who had passed away and blood running out of them, and they're covering him up with a sheet.

Hawthorne: I heard that there had been two dead, but one was not as a result of the blast. It was a news reporter from, I forget the foreign country. He had died of a heart attack or some other natural cause. [Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol died of a heart attack shortly after the bombing while rushing to record the scene.] They said there was one other death but did not say whether it was male or female or give any information. I have to admit it crossed my mind at that time that it might have been Alice [Hawthorne], but I dismissed it because there were so many people there and there were a lot of injuries.

Davis: We started trying to treat those that were injured. We were checking on our people and checking on citizens that were laying around. Alice Hawthorne was one that I went to. I saw her, and I saw that she was in very bad shape. When I got to her, I could see that she was severely injured.

Tomlinson: I saw her down, and she was obviously very seriously injured, and I walked over to her to check her pulse, and one of the troopers said, "I just checked it. I don't find any sign of life."

Hawthorne: I decided to go on to where my daughter, Fallon, was at at the Georgia Baptist Hospital and got up there. As I arrived, apparently they were expecting me and directed me toward the sixth floor, which was pediatrics. I'm still not knowing anything other than Fallon had been injured. So when I got to the sixth floor, and the doors to the elevator opened, my sister-in-law blurted out that Alice was killed. And I, I said something to the effect, don't play with me. Don't even begin to say something like that. But judging from her reaction, I could see that she wasn't joking and that it was true. I don't know what went through my head at the time. I just couldn't believe what I'd been told. I walked off to myself to try and deal with what I had been told. It would become increasingly difficult as it started to set in that it was true. A few minutes later, I went to find my daughter. They took me to her room, and at that time she didn't know. She was only 14. She had not been told. So we started talking, and eventually we let her know what had happened. She was visibly upset as you would expect. ... I got a call, and they wanted to know if I was prepared to identify a body.

Rollins: We were just running like bats out of hell, as fast as we could, to get down to that entrance, because we knew where to go. ... We're pushing ourselves into the park against this crowd of, you know, 10 gazillion people who are fighting to get their way out of the park. We're trying to shoulder our way through, saying, "Press! Press! AJC!" and holding our badges to get through the crowd.

Rini: We had nothing to write with. I borrowed a pen from a paramedic. We were picking up gauze off the ground and anything we could find to write notes with.

Rollins: There were about 150 people laying everywhere with various injuries and stuff. When we got there, we realized that we had to go fast. We knew that the press was running. ... And so it was like, OK, Perry run back to the paper now. Because it was like five blocks away. Run back to the paper. Run! Run! F---ing run to the paper! Tell them, "Stop the press." This is your stop-the-press moment. Tell them Pat will be back in 15 minutes with as much as he can gather, and I'll be back 15 minutes after Pat. Without even thinking, he just goes.

Patrick: I had to try to run and dodge all those people. It was really hot and humid. I'm out of breath, and I was sprinting as fast as I could. I had a backpack full of stuff. I've got this pack on and am trying to run after a couple of beers. So yeah, it felt like a lot further of a distance than it was.

Rollins: He pretty much ran into the front lobby of the building as the last couple of copy editors were leaving for the night, and he's like, "Stop the presses! Stop the presses! There's been an explosion!"

Patrick: I don't know if I actually yelled "Stop the presses." But I definitely remember yelling, "There's a bomb in the park." One of the copy editors was still there, walking. They stopped, and they kind of looked at me like, "Oh my God. Is this guy crazy?"

Rollins: Pat [Rini] and I were afraid. We didn't see any other reporters, so were afraid that if the cops realized that we were reporters, they would toss us out of the park.

Gray: They tried to throw me out of there 10 times.

Rollins: We hid our press badges in our pockets, and we sort of wandered from one little cluster of people to another, saying, "Hey, we're with the press. Please don't tell them who we are. Can we just talk to you and find out who you are, what you saw, what you heard and how badly hurt you are?"

Patrick: When he [Ron] came back [to the newspaper office], he had all these little bits of garbage he had written stuff on.

Myers: I think we did a report at 8 or 9 in the morning once things had calmed down, and then I remember them saying, "OK, you're clear." They throw me back to the Olympic rental house we were staying at. I crashed. I think I slept for, I don't know, it seemed like the next 48 hours.

Storm: We were filling air time until Tom Brokaw could be woken up out of bed and also like physically get from his hotel to where we were at the broadcast center. ... And then we had the Janet Evans video.

Evans: Most of the [messages] I remember were like, A) Are you OK? B) Is everyone else OK? C) We know you're OK because we saw you survive it on TV. Because what happened was the German reporter literally took the tape, ran out of the building and ran to CNN. CNN had that video running in like 10 minutes. ... I've seen it many times, and I hate watching it. It's not a happy memory.

Rini: All these thoughts go through your head. Are they going to cancel the Games? What's going to happen?

Lampley: When I walked away from the set that night, what I was thinking was, are the Games going to continue? Yes, I think they probably will. What kind of show are we going to be doing tomorrow?

Andrew Young (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games co-chairman): My first reaction was, my gosh, is this going to set off a chain reaction?

Gray: You just don't know when the next bomb's going to go off. Is it going to be next to you? A block from you? Are they setting booby traps for when people run in? You don't know. It this car that's parked here ... you know, you start thinking things you would never think.

Rollins: I remember calling my wife in Dayton when I thought she'd be up, like around 5 [a.m.] or so, and waking her up and saying, "When you catch the news, there was an explosion in the park. I was there. We covered it. We got the story, but I'm OK." Of course, her first words were, "I'm glad you're fine, but did it occur to you there could have been another bomb?" I had to be honest with her. I told her, "Yeah, we did think about that, and we went anyway."

Billy Payne (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) chief executive officer): My wife picked up the phone, said, Hello, and she never said another thing. She just gave me the phone, but she had that look of shock on her face as she did so. A.D. [Frazier, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games chief operating officer] said, "Get back to the office immediately. There's been a bombing." I, of course, as anybody would, immediately inquired about the details, and his response was, "Get over here."

Frazier: Billy told me to call [International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio] Samaranch. Which I did.

Payne: The attorney general was on the phone. The director of the FBI. The mayor of Atlanta. The Governor of Georgia. The head of the IOC. Ultimately the subject comes up about whether or not we should postpone or even cancel the Games. Everybody was going back and forth. Never was there unanimity in the first 45 minutes. Some would take the position that we must, of course, at least postpone until we identify the magnitude of the threat. If, in fact, this is a threat. Every possible scenario was laid on the table.

Frazier: We agreed that the Games would continue, and we would have a press conference at 6 a.m. to announce that.

The Olympics continued, but Centennial Park was closed for three days and reopened July 30.

Rini: It wasn't the same after that. It was very mellow.

Davis: If we could go back and they could do it all again, if we could have had the luxury of having the bag checks and bag searches of people coming to and from the park, then I think that may have changed the outcome of all of that. Of course, you know, we recommended that, but that was shot down early on in the Games.

Rudolph: After it exploded, I went back to the vacant lot. I had four other bombs all prepared. So, I detonated them in the garbage. I couldn't go on. ... I said to to hell with this, you know. It was just a complete disaster. I wasn't going to chance it happening again.

Hawthorne: There was no doubt in my mind that if I had been there, I would have been in front of [Alice] and Fallon, but I wasn't there. I beat myself up for many, many years, and it really took some time for me to stop blaming myself.

Richard Jewell, who was working as an Olympic security guard, spotted the knapsack that contained the bomb, and called it to the attention of the police. he also started moving visitors away from the area. But Jewell was later identified in an article in The Atlanta Journal as the subject of police attention. He spent what he called "88 days of hell" from the night he found the bomb in Centennial Park to the day he was cleared in the investigation, nearly three months fearing he would be arrested for a crime he didn't commit. His mother, whom he shared an apartment with during that time, used the same words 16 years later. "I don't think the television was shut off for the 88 days he was in the apartment. I call it 88 days of hell. If I ever write a book, that's what it's going to be." Jewell died at age 44 in 2007. The New York Times, in its obit, led with the headlineRichard Jewell, 44, Hero of Atlanta Attack, Dies

Barbara Jewell (Richard Jewell's mother): To this day, even though he's deceased [Richard Jewell died of natural causes in August 2007], his wife [Dana] takes a yellow rose and puts it [where Alice Hawthorne was killed] in honor of her, and she does one for Richard. Richard would go down on the night of the 27th, whenever it happened, he would wait until the park almost closed and put a rose in memory of [Hawthorne].

Scott: It hurts my heart that somebody like that [Rudolph] is out there doing those things in the name of some sort of twisted belief. It wrecked that thing for everybody. It just kind of put a taint on it.

Jewell: I personally would like to hang him [Rudolph], instead of my taxes paying to keep him alive.

Davis: Before the bombing, I know we had over 100 people involved in security at the park. It probably more than doubled after the bombing.

Payne: One of the most profound moments of my life came that morning. I walked into the Thomas Murphy Ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center. That's where the volunteers signed in every day. I walked in there, and almost all 5,000 volunteers were there. Not just the shift that was due to report, but all of the volunteers. I can't even describe how my knees were shaking. It was an attempt to state that no one will be allowed to disrupt this wonderful celebration that was had been having for the previous week. This great display of humanity coming together, despite all that otherwise divides us. Up until that moment, the park had been the greatest manifestation of that.

Sixteen years later, it's hard to find any markings of that night walking through the busy areas of 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park. The area is now known as the Quilt of Remembrance, and it borders the East fence of the park, hidden by trees, bushes and the hum of Centennial Olympic Park Drive traffic. The quilt is a mosaic of stones in the center of a diamond-shaped plaza -- 111 stones for the 111 people injured that night -- surrounded by etched quotes from Bill Clinton, Billy Payne and this from Andrew Young, "We will remember ... not hatred, not bitterness, not alienation ... but joy and happiness ... We still love this park."

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