Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta is the site of the greatest victory of the 1996 Olympics, in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
A lone terrorist crashed the joyous, international celebration that was beginning its ninth day.
He killed, and he maimed.
He tried to crush the Olympic spirit and end the Games.
But Atlanta, even in the grief he caused, would not let "the little man with the big bomb" win, in the words of one of the survivors.
This brand new park was the heart of the '96 Olympics, a boom town within the city, created in just one year out of a downtrodden swath of downtown Atlanta.
Centennial Olympic Park, aside from the Olympic Stadium itself, was the most spectacular venue of the ’96 Games.
And it was just a gathering place and a concert venue, around the clock, for the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world and Metro Atlanta who wanted to experience the Olympics spirit of peace and friendship.
“There was a lot of discussion in advance of what kind of security should be there," recalled Kent Alexander, who was the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta for four years, before, during and after the Olympics.
Alexander said the park's biggest asset was its openness. But that also made it the one "soft target" of the Games.
The Olympics security plan focused instead on the athletic venues, the athletes and spectators wrapped inside layer after layer of security.
It was a plan that came out of years of planning. Federal, state and local law enforcement worked together rehearsing and training, to prevent, and respond to, every imaginable attack on the ’96 Olympic venues and the athletes.
The Opening Ceremonies, with the President of the United States in the Olympic Stadium, turned out to be their first test.
An unauthorized man in a guard uniform, armed with a gun, somehow got past security. An Atlanta Police officer spotted him before he hurt anyone.
So the belief was that security was working as it should.
“Was the possibility of a bomb ever discussed? Of course,” Billy Payne, who helped bring the Olympics to Atlanta, said. “Was there a plan in place? Yes.”
During the Olympics, everyone in Atlanta was sure they were safe from terrorist attacks.
“But Rudolph did know the soft spot, because any [athletics] venue would have immediately detected a 40-pound bomb coming through it," Alexander said.
Eric Robert Rudolph, from Murphy, N.C. was mad at the world.
“He hates the federal government, he hates abortion, he hates Jews, he hates blacks, he hates gays,” Alexander said.
Rudolph set in motion his attack on the world at the Park, where he could get in.
Police and security guards at the Park had been on constant watch. Among them -- Richard Jewell.
At about 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 27, 1996, a week after the Games began, it was Jewell who spotted Rudolph’s bomb-in-a-backpack sitting all by itself.
“The park had been the most magnificent celebration of the Olympic spirit in the history of the Games. And this guy sneaks in a bomb undetected,” Payne said.
Rudolph placed his time-bomb underneath a bench at the bottom of a sound and light tower, and he disappeared into the darkness.
As soon as Richard Jewell noticed the backpack, he told GBI Agent Tom Davis. They were not sure if it was a bomb, but they and others began trying to clear the crowds away from it.
Then ATF agents crawled down for a look and saw wires in the pack.
“There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes,” Rudolph said to 911.
Rudolph called 911 from a nearby public phone, not knowing that his bomb had already been found.
His plan was for the 911 call to clear the park of everyone but police and federal agents. He wanted the bomb to kill them.
Jewell and the others did not know about the 911 call, but they were trying to push people away.
Just 20 minutes after Rudolph’s warning, as the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was about to begin another song, the bomb exploded.
The shrapnel killed Alice Hawthorne from Albany, Georgia, and wounded her daughter, Fallon Stubbs. They were there celebrating Stubbs' 14th birthday.
“I remember seeing my mother turn, do a complete 360," Stubbs said. "It was just probably going to be the most lasting memory out of all of that. It was all kind of mostly like a movie.”
A television news photographer from Turkey, Melih Uzunyol, running to the scene, died from a heart attack.
“He had two children. And now, what can be said to them? Their father, dead. Why? We don’t know,” a grieving and tearful co-worker of Uzunyol said at the time.
The explosion wounded at least 111 people.
“Sadness, uncertainty, anger,” Payne said.
Payne, grieving for the casualties, feared more attacks. He even thought of shutting down the Olympics.
“Oh yes. Big time. We were on the phone all night, back and forth. White House, mayor, governor, Olympic. Back and forth. Everybody had an opinion,” Payne said.
They didn’t know it then, but Rudolph was planning to strike the Games again, and again.
He never followed through, not until later at other targets.
“He had actually planned to do multiple bombings at the Olympics," Alexander said. "That’s why he had all these caches of dynamite and gunpowder around... His idea was to put the full Olympics in a panic by having things going off... Hundreds of people could have been killed.”
In those early morning hours after the explosion, during conference calls and meetings until dawn, and after private conversations with President Clinton, Payne heard the FBI’s preliminary conclusion: that the attacker was probably one person, not a terrorist group.
“I became convinced that the Olympic spirit that we had seen manifested so beautifully and wonderfully over the previous week must continue,” Payne said.
At 8:00 a.m. Saturday, while federal agents were processing the crime scene, meticulously gathering evidence, Payne decided to go to the Georgia World Congress Center next door to the Park, where the Atlanta Olympics volunteers were scheduled to begin their day. The volunteers were the backbone of the day-to-day Olympics operations, making sure every detail of the Olympics was carried out, minute-by-minute. Without the volunteers, the Atlanta Olympics would not be able to continue. Payne was thinking there was a chance that most of them might not show up, out of fear.
“I walked in that room and there were about 2,000 volunteers there. Maybe all three shifts for that day showed up early in the morning. I don’t remember what I said but I was speechless, crying like a baby.”
That was that. Atlanta had decided -- the Games must continue.
The following Tuesday morning, new security was in place at the Park for its reopening.
And people from Atlanta and the rest of the world filled that Park in defiance and in support of all that the Olympics represents, the best of the human spirit.
Andrew Young, who, with Payne, won the Olympics for Atlanta, rose to speak. Payne wanted Young to be the only speaker during the re-opening service.
Young spoke without writing down anything. He had no script, no notes, nothing on paper. It's how he learned decades earlier to give sermons. Young focused on healing and hope and victory in the face of evil.
“It was Atlanta," Payne said. "It was spiritual, it was inspirational. It was Andy Young."
“We’re here to proclaim a victory," Young said that day. "We’re here not to wallow in tragedy but to celebrate a triumph. A triumph of the human spirit... We assure you that your suffering is not in vain. We assure you that we, the children of the world, will learn new lessons from this experience... And we have no need for hatred or violence. We love you. We thank you. God bless you.”
To this day, Young says he doesn’t remember the words, only that he spoke from his heart. 11Alive showed him a transcript of the entire speech, as he remembered how much the re-opening meant to him.
“It was an emotional moment," Young said, stopping to compose himself.
Atlanta’s triumph over evil would be complete.
But it would take nine more years to get justice.
First, the FBI investigated -- and then cleared -- Richard Jewell, mistakenly thinking that Jewell might have planted the bomb so he could be the hero who found it.
Finally, the FBI identified Eric Rudolph as the suspect. It took nine years after the bombing to find him and convict him.
In 2005, Rudolph pleaded guilty to everything, four bombing attacks, in all: at Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996; at an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, GA, on January 16, 1997; at The Other Side Lounge in Atlanta on February 21, 1997, whose customers were primarily from the LGBT communities; and at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama on January 29, 1998, which killed a police officer and seriously wounded a nurse.
So, at the sentencing hearing, on August 22, 2005, Fallon Stubbs returned to Atlanta.
Just down the street from the park, in Federal court, a judge ordered Eric Rudolph to serve multiple life sentences in federal prison.
Stubbs stood in that courtroom, looked Rudolph in the eyes and spoke directly to him with a message from her Olympian heart.
“That I do not hate him. That I forgive him. And that makes me feel better. And I just needed him to know that, whether it matters to him or not. I just needed to say it,” Stubbs said. “To say that we are still here. We are still standing. And that we cannot be broken.”
“There’s something about Atlanta and Georgia and the South, and it is the sense that in spite of all of our imperfections and what’s wrong, there’s still a good spirit about life and each other that allows us to grow and prosper," Young said.