When the party ended on Peachtree Street Pandemonium: What was mistaken for fireworks at a rock concert turned out to be a pipe bomb that sent thousands scurrying for safety in its bloody aftermath.

July 28, 1996|By Peter Schmuck and Jean Marbella | Peter Schmuck and Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The party was over on Peachtree Street. The scores of late-night Olympic revelers had been pulled back into a dangerous world in one awful, sobering moment, and the reality of it all was just starting to sink in.

"It was just madness," said Eason Jacob of New York. "I've never been around anything like that before in my life."

Jacob was one of the thousands in downtown Atlanta who felt the sonic thud of the pipe bomb that exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person, leading to the death of another and injuring 111 more. No one knew at the time if it was a terrorist attack or a blown transformer, but everyone suspected the same thing.

Somebody bombed the Olympics.

The specifics would come later. The Atlanta police had detected a suspicious package and begun to clear the area when the bomb went off, spraying shrapnel into the large crowd that was attending a late-night rock concert. The next hour was chaos, as police moved aggressively to clear the Olympic Park of spectators and attend to the dead and wounded.

The explosion, captured on videotape, was big enough to be considered a major terrorist incident yet small enough that some spectators initially mistook it for fireworks.

"We were right by it," said Steve Bass of West Palm Beach, Fla., "but nobody really knew what was going on. I saw a guy lying on the ground, and at first I thought he was drunk, but he had blood coming out of his head."

Eyewitness reports were unreliable, however, because every pedestrian with a story to tell was mobbed by the international media horde that was already mobilized to cover the biggest sporting event in the world.

The hour was late, and the street was full of people who had been partying all night long. Some were lying on the sidewalk -- looking like victims, but only of their own overindulgence.

Inside the fence, off-duty emergency room physician David Loya was attending to the victims. He was returning from the final session of the Olympic swimming competition when he heard the blast and rushed in to help.

"When I got there, there were about 20 people on the ground and one body with a sheet completely over it," Loya said. "There were a lot of walking wounded. Some were critically injured, with neck, chest and abdominal injuries."

Loya was wearing a T-shirt from the swim competition that had been autographed by U.S. Olympians Tom Dolan, Summer Sanders and several others, but some of the signatures were splattered with blood.

Another mob scene had developed a few blocks away. Hundreds of reporters were trapped inside the Olympic Press Center when the police moved to secure the building, though it still is unclear whether the lockup was done for security reasons or to keep a large segment of the international press away from the blast site.

Reporters also were trying to get into the press center as precious time ticked away to make their latest editions.

There was a radio report that police tried to disperse the crowd of media with pepper spray. It was unsubstantiated, but it wasn't hard to believe after police dispersed a large gathering of television and newspaper reporters just a few blocks away, using a riot line of officers on horseback.

The combined police force, which included local, state and military security personnel, moved quickly to secure a wide perimeter around the site of the explosion so that the wounded could be transported to hospitals and any evidence would be undisturbed for the FBI disaster team that was already on its way to Atlanta.

Many of the injured were transported to nearby Grady Memorial Hospital, which already was working on heightened alert because of the large number of visitors expected in the downtown area for Friday night's Olympic festivities.

Acting medical director Gail V. Anderson was one of the first to replace speculation with numbers. He confirmed the first fatality and reported that 31 patients were being treated for injuries ranging from minor to serious, but added that many other patients had been sent to other hospitals.

"There are a lot of shrapnel-type injuries," he said.

The streets were beginning to empty and dawn was breaking when the main press center was reopened and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee, the FBI, the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia State Police held a combined news conference.

"The Games will go on," said IOC Director General Francois Carrard. "Everything from an operational standpoint is in place. The buses are rolling and the athletes have been notified."

The Olympics resumed yesterday morning with a moment of silence for the victims and all Olympic flags at half-staff.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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