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TERROR AT THE OLYMPICS

Early Morning Hours That Changed a City

Night: For ordinary people, the Olympics become extraordinary in the moment it takes a bomb to explode. They tell of the night Atlanta blew.

July 28, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — A teenager and his dad, bonding on a night in a city they found beautiful.

A federal auditor hawking T-shirts for the first night in his life, having the time of his life.

A construction worker surrounded by so much barbecue and blues, he found himself hammering in rhythm.

There were thousands of ordinary people who descended upon downtown Atlanta on Friday to discover an extraordinary night of the Olympics.

Souvenirs, even those $10 gold medals, were selling. The heat was easing. Toilets were working. People swear they saw those giant statues of Elvis and Marilyn dancing.

Charles Barkley had just completed the final Olympic event of the night--the Dream Team's 133-70 basketball victory over China--by leading the Georgia Dome crowd in a dance to the Village People's "YMCA."

Then the city blew.

By the time Korea's Kim Ji-Hyun served the first badminton shuttlecock in the first downtown Olympic event Saturday at 9:03 a.m., a dark and steady rain provided the appropriate finale to a nightmare.

A recap of the early hours Saturday that may change forever the way people will look at this city and these Games:

*

12:30 a.m.--"I haven't been down to that park yet. Why don't we go?"

Jason Sanders, a 19-year-old student, looks at his father, Jake. He later remembers that they both smiled.

Jason has just finished work as a security guard at the Georgia Dome; Jake has just finished as an engineer at Georgia State University.

"My dad and I are tight. About twice a month we go out," Jason said. "We do cool things. You know, listen to music, maybe look at girls."

After returning to their home to change clothes, they drive to the park and head for the main stage.

A Los Angeles band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack is playing. Rock, soul, a little Al Green.

"Our kind of music," Jason said.

1 a.m.--Jeffrey Wright, a construction worker from New Orleans, sighs and starts thinking that his journey has finally been worth it.

Contracted here to work in the kitchens of the Ole Smokehouse BBQ restaurants near the park, he has survived the hassles and crowds to find comfort in Friday night's rush of enthusiasm.

"We had a full house for the first time, the band was going good, everybody was together," he said. "I was back in the kitchen, really enjoying myself."

1:07 a.m.--In the shadow of Richard Buhre's souvenir booth, with the glint of brightly lit USA jackets and flags visible through the darkness, someone picks up a pay phone. He calls 911 and says there will be an explosion in Centennial Olympic Park in 30 minutes.

"The person was right next door to me, walked right past me, and I missed him," Buhre said. "I keep thinking and thinking, how could I have missed him?"

At the same time, authorities say, security guards spot a suspicious-looking knapsack.

Precisely where Jason and Jake Sanders are walking.

1:15 a.m.--"I need to go to the bathroom," Jason Sanders tells his father. "You want to go?"

His father agrees, and they begin walking away from the package.

At the same time, security guards begin alerting others to leave the immediate area.

"But everybody is still just moving to the music, having a good time," Jason Sanders recalled. "Real crowded, but real fun."

1:25 a.m.--A hot wind hits Jason and Jake Sanders in the back of the head.

"There's a big boom, and I feel something go right through me," Jason recalled.

"That's an amplifier," Jake says after the blast.

"It is not," Jason says.

They turn, and what is amplified is their horror. The same people who were bumping their shoulders are now lying on the ground, bleeding from the bomb.

Within minutes, the ones who are still standing are running. The father grabs the son, and together they race from the park.

Only when they are safely outside do they stop and hug.

1:30 a.m.--Wright thinks it is just perfect. The first good night of the Olympics is being capped by fireworks.

1:40 a.m.--Buhre doesn't know what to think. Everybody he sent to the park is now hurrying past him in the other direction. Some are crying, others shrieking. He has heard the boom, but he never imagined this. Soon the narrow downtown road is filled with so many people and machines that Buhre leaves his post and does something else for the first time in his life. He runs to the middle of an intersection and directs traffic.

2 a.m.--A five-block area around the park is in chaos. The police are setting up roadblocks and ordering evacuations, but the thousands of people can't decide what to do.

Some are hugging in the middle of the road. Others are sitting on the ground and crying. Some continue rushing to their cars. Others try to return to the park to gawk.

"Get back, get back!" scream the police.

"Where are we supposed to go?" scream some bystanders.

"This is God telling us something," says a tearful Kelly Beaudry, an Atlanta student.

The humming of helicopters and wail of sirens seem to paralyze the hundreds who refuse to leave the chaotic streets.

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