Light security at park made it vulnerable to attack Organizers wanted place where fans, athletes could meet freely

July 28, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Billy Payne's dream turned into a nightmare.

The chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games pushed hardest to transform 21 acres of derelict downtown land into a temporary corporate playground and a glorious permanent midtown green space, Centennial Olympic Park.

But early yesterday morning, the park became the site of the first terrorist incident at a U.S.-based Olympics, when a pipe bomb explosion ripped through the city's heart and damaged the Summer Olympics.

What was supposed to be a gathering place for fans, an area where corporate America could roll out the red carpet for the world, became a park strewn with shrapnel. Yesterday, it was shut down while local, state and federal law enforcement officials searched the area for clues.

Unlike the main Olympic venues, with their array of security check points, the Centennial Olympic Park was protected only by fences and security guards. Spectators simply walked through gates to get to the fun and games. The only people who routinely had to stop and show identification at the gates were members of the broadcast media.

"Everyone always knew that was the most open and vulnerable place," President Clinton said yesterday at the White House.

Olympic officials and security personnel defended the precautions taken at the park.

"Security at the park, or in any location at any time, is of some concern to all of us," said Woody Johnson, head of the FBI's Atlanta office.

He said that in a free society, a trade-off on security is made as people come and go through various locations.

"It's a tough situation," he said.

A. D. Frazier, ACOG's chief operating officer, said: "Centennial Park was not a sporting competition venue and, therefore, was ** open to the public. And it was not part of the sports competition or areas that we have put extensive security precautions in."

Yet vendors who worked on the streets leading to the park, built to accommodate 50,000 people, said the area was overrun with LTC 100,000 or more people during most parts of the Olympic day. They said that security personnel could not keep track of the thousands of backpacks, suitcases and bags carried into the park.

"We were talking about how easy it was to do some damage," said T.J. Smith, a vendor. "They didn't spread the people out enough."

Percy Brown, another vendor, said security was so lax he could come and go as he pleased, not only at the park, but also at the Olympic venues.

"The cops were just busy talking and having a good time," he said. "They were lax. I just didn't see how this could work.

"It was just too crowded in there. This wasn't a street fest, this was a street mob."

Payne's vision of an Olympic gathering place was snuffed out in a flash. After the success of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where fans gathered at all hours by spectacular fountains and pedestrian areas, organizers of the Atlanta Games decided they needed a space that would be considered a center of fan fun.

Payne, the man who brought the Games to Atlanta in the first place, said he wanted to bring together fans, athletes and corporate clients into one giant party spot. And his plan happened to run parallel to Atlanta's long-term efforts to refashion its downtown.

Originally, the park was supposed to be a clear space and used as a main bus depot for the world's news media covering the Games.

But Centennial Olympic Park arose from the rubble of a blighted inner-city neighborhood. Workers put the finishing touches on the place only days before the Olympics began.

At the opening earlier this month, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell said: "All across our city, we've seen mind-boggling changes. Nowhere has the change been more apparent than at this Centennial Park."

The park was ridiculed by critics who said the Olympics were no place for spots such as BudWorld, AT&T Global Communications Center and a gigantic Swatch pavilion, but it was a hit with the fans. Hundreds of thousands of spectators were lured to the area, with its corporate tents, gift shops, refreshment stands, fountains and red bricks engraved with the names of Olympic donors. People frolicked in fountains during the day, and danced in front of an elaborate stage at night.

The park serves as an important Olympic conduit, bringing fans to the main venues in the Olympic Ring. It is also a front yard to the CNN headquarters and a side yard to Coca-Cola City, the theme show devised by the city's most prominent company.

But yesterday, fans were detoured around the area, as the Olympics carried on at other sites around the city.

"We are working with those who were involved in law enforcement to organize the partial opening of the park," Frazier said.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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