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THE NATION

FBI Discounts Terrorist Link in Salt Lake Outage

March 01, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — FBI investigators concluded Thursday that an electrical outage in Salt Lake City on the last day of the Winter Olympics was caused by a fairly powerful explosive device, but they do not believe the Games were the target or that terrorists were responsible.

"We could be looking at a disgruntled employee, we could be looking at a prankster, someone looking to cause a nuisance," said Don Johnson, special agent in charge of the Salt Lake City's FBI office. "We don't know. But we have skulduggery here."

The explosion about 10 a.m. Sunday knocked out a circuit breaker at a power substation 1 1/2 miles from Salt Lake International Airport, cutting electricity to about 33,000 homes in the area for about an hour and later sparking a fire at a nearby oil refinery.

No one was hurt, and the outage did not disrupt any operations at the airport or at the closing ceremonies of the Games, which were held eight hours later at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

However, investigators thought the explosion was suspicious from the outset. A hole was apparently cut in a fence at the Utah Power & Light Terminal substation, which had 24-hour security during the Olympics, and indentations in metal near the site of the explosion indicated a possible bomb.

The investigation is continuing, Johnson said. However, early evidence "indicates it had nothing to do with the Olympics, it was not a terrorist attack," because the circuit breaker that was damaged did not affect power for Olympic venues and authorities received no claims of responsibility or intelligence reports indicating that terrorists might have been involved.

Johnson said that investigators are awaiting the results of tests on possible explosive residue from the scene.

But he said investigators concluded Thursday from other evidence that the explosion was not caused by a mechanical or equipment failure and that it appeared to have been triggered by "a highly explosive device."

He noted that the circuit breaker was jolted out of place. "It's pretty heavy. It would take a pretty good charge to move it."

The FBI and and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are leading the investigation. Authorities are asking anyone with information to call (888) ATF-BOMB.

The explosion was one of only a few episodes posing a security risk during the 17 days of the Olympic Games, despite unparalleled concern about possible terrorist attacks as a result of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

By contrast, the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996 were marred by a bomb at Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta, which killed one person and injured more than 100. The main suspect in that bombing, survivalist Eric Rudolph, has never been caught.

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