“Anybody want to grab a bite to eat?” I asked.
“No, I think I’ll just go home.”
“No thanks, we have an early flight tomorrow.”
“We’re going to wander over by the stadium.”
And like that, it was over. I had worked over three-hundred hours in a little over two weeks, and some time between 6:30 and 7:30 on Sunday, August 4th, 1996; It. Was. Over.
I was too keyed up to drive home and I honestly wasn’t sure what to do with a free evening, so I just sat down in one of the folding chairs in the muster tent and thought about the preceding two weeks.
I had been working for two years to prepare for my role as a security supervisor in the 1996 Olympic Games, but they began in earnest two weeks earlier on Friday afternoon. That’s when I walked into this tent for the first time to meet the crew of a hundred-thirty or so volunteers. I parted the flaps of the massive white tent that afternoon and was greeted by a group of about two dozen. I then did the same thing I would find myself doing many times each day after that; tearing up the plan and winging it.
My post was called Olympic Center Perimeter, and was just that – The perimeter around, and the public areas within the Olympic Center. This included the three largest venues, The World Congress Center, The Georgia Dome, and the Omni Coliseum. It did not include Centennial Park or the Olympic Stadium where track and field would be held, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.
That was the source of part of my problem that evening. Many of the volunteers had decided to go the opening ceremonies. Fortunately, that’s where everyone else was also, so we decided to lock down most of the site until the next day, when the actual games began.
The next morning, I showed up at 6 a.m. to meet what I hoped was a better group of volunteers. When I arrived, I still didn’t have as much help as had been promised – a problem that would continue for another week. I had just enough people to adequately man all my posts, so I began doing just that. This is where I ran into my second major command problem – why was I in charge?
Myself and several dozen other supervisors scattered throughout the Olympic Games had come from a local group providing volunteer security for the Georgia Games. This was an annual event that was similar to, but much smaller in scale, to the Olympics. For this reason, ACOG (The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games) had selected us to help them prepare for, recruit and train, security for the Olympics. The rest of the many thousand volunteers came from all over the country and the globe. Many of these were current and retired law enforcement personnel of all kinds.
I worked directly under retired Secret Service and F.B.I. agents. Under me, I had a police chief from Basalt Colorado and a police officer from the Miami school system (whatever that meant.) I had corrections officers, regular police, army personnel, Interpol, and police from most European countries and Sydney, Australia. Why were they taking orders from a guy with absolutely no law enforcement experience?
For most of them, plain old chain of command worked. They did what I said because I had the stripes on my shoulders. For one crusty old Interpol officer from Sweden, that wasn’t good enough. He made it clear that he didn’t think it was right to have to answer to someone with no law enforcement experience. I couldn’t necessarily argue with his logic, but the fact remained that I was the boss and he wasn’t. One of my busiest gates was the approach to the venue from Centennial Park. Many tourists came through here and it was also the main approach to the press area in the World Congress Center. To make matters worse, it was just across the street from a sports bar that had an outside patio and attracted huge crowds throughout the games. This was the time when the Macarena was very popular and that bar played the damn song twice an hour.
I decided to kill two birds with one stone. On the second day of the games I took the Interpol officer to this gate and made it his. I told him to radio me if he needed anything, but otherwise it was his to command, and he wouldn’t see me unless there was a problem or he called me. I would swing by once or twice a shift with water and supplies, but otherwise I didn’t have to hear him gripe or the Macarena.
One of the primary focuses for security personnel was watching out for unusual or abandoned packages of any kind. It was on my first full day that I encountered the first package of many. We had heard of a bomb being found and safely detonated in the mail area inside the World Congress Center earlier in the day, so we were already on high alert.
I was working one of the gates, standing several yards in side the gate watching my crew work the crowd. Picture the security checkpoint at a major airport, except outside are just huge unorganized mobs coming in waves, and you’ll get the picture. We had people searching packages, watching the magnetometers, and wanding individuals. I would watch to make sure the people in charge of the gate were staffing and rotating personnel and handling the flow of people as much as possible.
After a bit of observing I turned to head to the next post, when I saw it. In the middle of a grassy square, isolated from most pedestrian traffic was a small box about the size of a shoebox, but more square. I radioed the command post and had the CO get a visual using the many security cameras in the area. He immediately sent Atlanta Police to help with crowd control and alerted the bomb squad. A couple of Atlanta PD officers and I blocked off the area forcing pedestrians to walk in a wide perimeter around it. We constantly had to fend off questions about why they couldn’t walk straight from point A to point B. A week later, we would stop getting this question.
The DOD bomb squad showed up and went through their routine, using robotics, and shielded armor. They couldn’t detect any sign of explosives, so finally one officer in the bomb suit approached the package and slowly opened it.
“What? What did he say? Sushi?”
One of the rules of the games was that no outside food was allowed. We were supposed to check at our gates, but it wasn’t a priority. The security they would pass through to actually get into a venue would check more thoroughly. A spectator had apparently been turned away at the Omni and instead of finding a trashcan, just dropped his box of sushi in the middle of the green.
We would spend quite a bit of time and effort over the next two weeks protecting people from all manner of suspicious packages. The seriousness of that wouldn’t hit home to most until the events of the following Friday night. They wouldn’t hit for me personally until a few nights later than that.
Meanwhile, my eighteen hour days pretty much blended into one another – the memory one long single event broken up by many, many highlights and low points. I met celebrities and politicians, performers and athletes. I also worked with some very memorable people. Some groups, like the Border Patrol, you could just give direction and get out of their way. Others, like the Army, required a bit more hands on direction. This could be both useful and entertaining.
Late July and August in Atlanta, Georgia is hot. Very hot and humid. There were days when we couldn’t get enough water and ice to keep my people safe and comfortable. One day, I had had enough of asking. I grabbed a young Army corporal and one of his men. I gave them a golf cart and an order.
“Find me some ice, lots of ice.”
“Where do you want me to get it from?”
“I don’t care. Improvise. But don’t come back without ice.”
About half an hour later, he calls me on the radio to meet him back at the Command Post. I beat him back there and watched him pull up, the golf cart loaded to capacity with dozens of bags of ice. I helped him load it into the cooler and water tanks.
“Do you want to know where we got it?”
“No. But I want you to know where you got it. We’ll need more.”
This was one of the better examples. The army does a great job, but the one thing they train the soldiers to do is take orders – and nothing else. If you tell one to breathe in, you’d better not forget to tell them to breathe out. One day, we had one of the many heat related incidents by a spectator out in the public areas. I had an ambulance coming in and I didn’t want any holdup at one of the vehicle security checkpoints – which was manned by army personnel.
“Hold all radio traffic for an announcement. C.P. to gate 86. I have an ambulance coming in hot and I don’t want it stopped. Clear the gate and let it pass.”
A few seconds of silence passes.
“Gate 86, did you copy?”
“This is gate 86.”
“Gate 86. Did you copy? Come back.”
“This is gate 86. You said to hold all radio traffic.”
“Gate 86. This is C.P. Did you copy my announcement about an ambulance?”
“This is gate 86. I don’t know about that, but an ambulance just came through hear and it didn’t stop. We tried waving it down, but it just kept going. Is that okay?”
Stories like these were abundant during the games and would be shared among volunteers, friends, and family. Others would be held a little closer, a little longer, and brought into the light a little later. As most everyone knows, a week into the Games, a bomb exploded in Centennial Park, killing one and injuring many. It also injured the spirit of the games and made the second week of the event a much more serious, somber affair for those of us in the trenches.
Early one evening, a few days before the end of the games, I was called by my Commanding Officer back to the C.P. Clearly, there was something going on that couldn’t be handled over the radio. He took me and a major with Atlanta Police into his office.
“We have specific, credible intel of a bomb threat outside the Omni coliseum. We have a description of the suspect and the package and a timeframe of between eight and nine.”
He gave us both the descriptions he had received. The police major left to deploy his men. The C.O. told me that the Colonel in charge of our army personnel would meet me outside to give me a squad to aid in the search. I grabbed a couple of radios and walked out to meet the colonel. He was just going through roll call and pointed to one row of men.
“You eight. Report to Mister Brooks and follow his orders. Fall out!”
With that, the eight men followed me to the Chevy Suburban I had commandeered. Amazingly, we all squeezed inside for the short drive to where the bomb was supposedly going to be placed. Once we were all inside and about to take off, the sergeant in charge of this unit asked, “Where are we going?”
I looked at him in disbelief. I am always reminded of this when I see the closing scene of the first half of Fellowship of the Ring, when Pippin, the youngest of the hobbits, having just convinced the council of Elders to allow him to go along on the quest, asked this same question.
“Didn’t the Colonel brief you on the mission?” I asked.
“Negative. He said follow you. We’re following you.” Great. This left me the job of briefing this SUV full of kids on what we were about to do.
“We have a description of a person and a package. Supposedly this person is going to leave the package and detonate it outside the Omni between now and twenty-one hundred. We are going to patrol that area. Hopefully, between security, army, and police personnel, we scare him off. Meanwhile, we look for the man and look for a package matching the description. We are not allowed at this point to shut down the venue or evacuate the area. You need to spread out, keep moving, keep looking, and report to your sergeant, who will report to me.”
They didn’t look too excited about the prospect, but they would follow orders. We got to the Omni and started deploying around the area. I went over the description one more time with police, and that is when I found out that the clothing description included a jersey with 32 on it. Shaq Oneal. I only saw about half a dozen of these in the first five minutes. I decided I would concentrate more on the package – a blue duffel bag, and let the police look for the suspect.
On my second round of the area, I came across my army guys – standing together in a bunch in the middle of the concourse.
“What part of spread out and keep moving did you not understand?” I asked. They looked at me with the same, who’s this guy look I had gotten used to. I tried a different tactic. “Okay, sergeant, get on the radio, call the C.P. and tell the colonel to send me a different squad. Explain your problem to him. I’m sure he’ll understand.”
I didn’t have to talk to them again, so I left them to the task and continued my patrol. You would think that looking for a specific bag in a limited area would be easy, but this was anything but. There were many tourists wandering about, most with bags. There were dozens of street vendors set up, all of whom had brought their wares in various bags and boxes. Many of these also had their tables draped with cloths that had to be looked under. In addition, there were dozens of stairwells, doorways, trash receptacles, and plantings.
As nine o’clock approached and I was checking a series of doors once again, the thought finally occurred to me. It hadn’t before this. I had concentrated on the task at hand and done the job. I had been doing this for almost two weeks, eighteen hours a day, and I just reacted to the situation. Now, as I tugged on a locked door, it came to me. What if it had been real? What if the device was there and had been detonated?
As nine o’clock came and went, and we were told to stand down, I pulled out my cell phone and called my wife. I told her that I missed her and just wanted to talk. I had done this often enough over the course of the event that she didn’t think anything about it. But the reality was that the adrenaline had left and I was drained. I just wanted to hear her voice. I had three hours left on my shift, but I was ready for that day – and for the event – to be over.
A few nights later it was, and I sat in my chair and remembered the jumble of memories from the previous two weeks. I would never have another experience similar to this, and I smiled to myself thinking, that’s okay – once is enough. As I left and walked toward my car to go home, I passed my C.O.
“If I work Salt Lake City, I may give you a call,” he said, shaking my hand.
“If you do, bring a checkbook. My volunteer days are over.”