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Olympic Bombing Stuns World

Level of Security at Park Was Subject of Early Debate

Olympics: Despite urgings that access be controlled, Games panel and civic leaders pushed for a wide-open space.

July 28, 1996|JEFF BRAZIL RALPH FRAMMOLINO and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ATLANTA — From the beginning, long before the corporate logos went up above Centennial Olympic Park, security chief William Rathburn urged that access to the area be tightly controlled.

"This will not be a public park," Rathburn said nearly a year ago.

Among other things, Rathburn and other security officials believed that, if the park were wide open, crowd control would be difficult and law enforcement would be hampered in the 21-acre space.

But Rathburn, a former LAPD deputy chief who oversaw security for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, was opposed by Billy Payne, the strong-willed head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), and by the city's mayor and its leading newspaper. They favored a place open to all, a vibrant city center that would act as a magnet for Olympic revelry and would stand after the games as a monument to Atlanta's moment in the international spotlight.

Rather than adopt the strict security measures at every other Olympic site, planners carried out Payne's vision: an open area, surrounded by a fence and filled with security guards but no tickets, metal detectors or inspections.

Now, with the entire world riveted on a terrorist attack that left two dead and injured 111, the debate over security at the park has been renewed as officials scramble for ways to reopen it.

"This was not an athletic venue," Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said Saturday. "This was a place that did not require tickets. In fact, it was a place if you could not afford a ticket you could take your family and enjoy the Olympic spirit for free. It was a public park."

Not that the park has been without security: Hundreds of authorities under the command of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation mingled with spectators at the park, keeping an eye out for trouble, trying to spot problems and confiscating alcoholic beverages, among other things. Some of the authorities were equipped with night-vision goggles, and a host of additional officers were close at hand in the event of trouble.

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It was state agents, in fact, who were alerted to the suspicious package in a green knapsack shortly before 1 a.m. Saturday. After alerting other agents, they were clearing the crowd back when the bomb exploded a few minutes later. Without their effort, casualties would certainly have been higher, security experts and political leaders agreed.

"These folks," Miller said of the agents, "saved lives."

But even in light of that success, investigators are probing whether there also was a breakdown.

The state agents were never told that a man had called 911 at 1:07 a.m. to say that a bomb was planted in the park and would soon go off. At the time the call came in, the agents had already found the bomb, which would explode at 1:25 a.m.--18 minutes after the 911 call was placed from a bank of pay phones on the outskirts of the park.

"Our people at the scene knew of the device and were trying to deal with it," said Woody Johnson, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Atlanta. "Unfortunately, it went off in a very short period of time."

Still, authorities were working Saturday to learn why the 911 was never communicated from the city's emergency service to the state agents in the field. They are also reviewing videotapes from cameras mounted on rooftops and lampposts in the park to see if they show a white male using the pay phones at the time the 911 call was placed.

When the debate over park security arose last year, Olympic planners opted for a large public commons similar to one that impressed Payne when he visited Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 for its Olympic Games. In the Atlanta version, AT&T, Coca-Cola and other corporate sponsors established beachheads, erecting huge facilities intended to lure tens of thousands of visitors.

According to sources, law enforcement officials privately raised concerns in meetings with Atlanta organizers but publicly swallowed their reservations once they were overruled. That allowed the plans to go forward even as some federal and local authorities fretted that the setup made the park vulnerable.

"Why, when you have 27 venues with all these careful measures in place, why in the 28th venue would you have so little on the perimeter?" asked Ben Sherwood, a Los Angeles author who recently published a novel about a terrorist attack on the Summer Olympics. "It just doesn't make any sense."

Brent C. Brown, president and chief executive officer of an Atlanta-based security firm, agreed that while it is easy to second-guess security arrangements, the lax perimeter control of Centennial Olympic Park made it an inviting target.

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"Frankly, I was down there the night before last with my family and I voiced my concern with them," Brown said. "Although I saw a lot of visible security, I was quite surprised there was no secure perimeter established."

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