My alarm woke me up at 5:00 Saturday morning, July 27, 1996. I didn’t really know it was a weekend. I had put in seven consecutive eighteen-hour days and I had a little more than a week to go. I was working as volunteer security for the Olympic Games in Atlanta. How I got here and why I was working these insane hours is another story, but here I was. I had to be downtown by six and I would stay there until I was relieved at midnight. I had slept like the dead, but something was nagging at the back of my mind.
“Did somebody call us in the middle of the night?” I asked my wife as I started pouring coffee down my throat.
“Someone? At least five people called last night.”
“Who called? What did they want?”
“Everyone. They wanted to know if you were all right. A bomb exploded last night. People were killed.”
A sinking feeling hit me in the gut. I wanted to cry, but I knew that was the fatigue more than anything. “Where? Where was the bomb? When was the explosion?”
“It was in Centennial Park. Around one o’clock.”
Three thoughts hit me at once. It wasn’t my watch, it happened about a block from one of my checkpoints, and I drove past within forty-five minutes of the explosion.
“I have to go. It’s going to get ugly today.” We had been hammering the Olympic Committee since day one. We didn’t have enough volunteers. There were people sitting around with nothing to do in venues that were overbooked, and downtown, in the center of everything, we were stretched too thin.
I got in my car and drove to our secure lot next to the Olympic Perimeter Center command post. There were more of the regular army guys manning the post than normal. Rather than the good natured joking that usually accompanied checking in, everything was grim and business like. Every compartment was checked, every bag opened, a mirror was run under the vehicle. These privates and corporals had checked me through every day for a week, but now things had changed. It was real.
I walked into the command post, grabbed a radio, and got what few details there were. My CO told me that about 1:20 a device had exploded near the stage in the park. At least one dead, many injured. No one knew much of anything else.
I proceeded to the muster tent to greet and deploy my group of volunteers. I knew that a major part of my duties that day would involve moral and keeping everyone focused. When I entered the tent, there was a large addition to my usual group. This turned out to be good because over half of my force failed to show up that morning. Bad news travels fast. About thirty young men and women stood in the corner wearing the brown uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol. I guess someone decided to take things more serious.
I deployed the Border Patrol as a unit to my largest and busiest gate. This was the one that screened spectators entering the Georgia Dome where both basketball and gymnastics were competing. It was an absolute pleasure working with these kids. They were enthusiastic and eager. They were also very knowledgeable about the mission – after all, this was a tiny border they were patrolling.
The day proceeded as normal running from post to post and gate to gate, handling personnel problems and checking security levels. What was different about the rest of the day was the extra time spent talking to the volunteers. There were a hundred rumors floating around that need to be squelched and there were many real fears that I handled as best I could. Our mission hadn’t changed, but the consequences of failure were more heartfelt.
Around three p.m. as I was handling shift change for most of my staff, a sergeant with Atlanta Police came over and pulled me aside. “I wanted to let you know. They got the guy that did it. He was one of you.”
“One of who?”
“He was a volunteer security officer. One of you guys set the bomb.” He walked off with a smug look. It was no secret that APD didn’t care for the volunteer security force. They wanted to handle all the security themselves. They weren’t real clear on how they wanted to fill the void that would have been left without the thousands of volunteers.
Great. My job just got better. Until I knew better, I decided to treat this as one more rumor and try to keep moral up. At least there was one gate I didn’t have to worry about. The Border Patrol was a plug and play operation. I left them alone – they did the job.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. As with any other day at the games, there was some entertainment to be had. After waiting for Secret Service to clear President Clinton from the basketball venue, Arnold Schwarzenegger came out to get into his limo. I decided to feed him a straight line. “Hey, Arnold. Are you leaving?”
“I’ll be back,” he shot back without hesitation.
Later that evening, I got a call for immediate assistance from the V.I.P. gate. I had placed the volunteers from Sydney, Australia there to work together. They needed the training for their upcoming 2000 Games.
“What’s the problem?”
“We have a bloke here without proper credentials. He says he is supposed to give an interview, but I’ve never heard of him.”
“What’s his name?”
“Evander Holyfield. He claims to be a boxer.”
Laughing, I replied, “Put him on. I can I.D. him over the radio. I proceeded to verify the heavyweight champion and got him through security.
As the last of the venues slowed down for the night and my shift ended, I left through my perimeter on International Blvd., and proceeded to walk down the hill one block to Centennial Park. I hadn’t been to the park since the Games began. I passed through the outer fence, approached the yellow crime scene tape, and stood looking across to the scorched area in the grass.
I stood there for a few minutes, trying to gather my thoughts about that night. But I had just finished another eighteen hours, I had eight more days to go, and my mind and body were numb. I left, went back to my car and drove home for another too short night, praying only that the phone wouldn’t ring.
Another non-fiction piece. If you like it, read my other work, The Games