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Bumping Into History: Richard Jewell & the Atlanta Olympics Bombing

Statue at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park.

Sometimes a life can be defined by a single moment.

Like the moment in the early morning hours of July 27, 1996, when a security guard named Richard Jewell noticed a suspicious bag near the base of a sound tower at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. Despite the hour, the park was crowded with music fans who had gathered to hear a late night concert. Jewell alerted authorities about the bag and started moving people out of the area.

A close-up of the statue above reveals the imprint of a nail ejected from the Centennial Olympic Park bomb.

An enjoyable summer evening in the midst of the Atlanta Olympics was shattered moments later when a bomb inside the bag exploded, killing two people and injuring 111 others.

Jewell was immediately proclaimed a hero for saving countless lives, but within days he became the FBI’s chief suspect in the bombing. Though never arrested, the rush to judgment destroyed Jewell’s quality of life. His constant hounding by law enforcement agencies and the news media only ceased when the real bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, was captured many years later. Jewell returned to working in security jobs until his death in 2007.

Richard Jewell represents an often sad group of people who “bump into history” – those individuals who are simply going about their lives and somehow find themselves swirling amidst a maelstrom of events beyond their control.

Today, Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta is the centerpiece of a vibrant world class city. The bombing, which took place fourteen years ago today, is rarely a topic for the hundreds of picnickers and Frisbee-tossing sunbathers who frequent the park on summer days.

I visited the park during a recent trip to Atlanta. It’s situated in a beautiful spot adjacent to the buildings that house the CNN Headquarters and the Coca-Cola tour. It was only after a long search that I was able to locate the only physical reminders of the domestic terrorist act. Along one street there is a memorial court dedicated to the victims, near where the bomb detonated. A more chilling site is the statue that still bears the imprint of a nail that was ejected from the bomb.

During the seven Olympic games that have followed Atlanta, there have been no major acts of terror. Let’s pray that moments like the one that occurred in Centennial Olympic Park fourteen years ago remain a part of history, and never visit us again in the future.