It was the summer of 1996 and, as luck would have it, I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, the home of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. The city dressed itself, like never before, for the gala event. Downtown, Underground, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology), the Olympic Stadium (now called Turner Field), and other sites had the distinct privilege of officially hosting the games. In downtown, Peachtree Street, which runs predominantly in the north-to-south direction, was closed and fully dedicated for pedestrian traffic. Only official vehicles for security and emergency purposes were allowed in this area. International Boulevard, also off-limit to cars, led the crowd from Peachtree Street down to Centennial Olympic Park, a playground built specifically, as the name implies, for the event at hand. Businesses, mainly retail and entertainment, also readied themselves for the feeding frenzy! Stores stocked up on their inventory and allocated resources to actively promote themselves for the Olympic opportunity! Parking garages expected to make a “killing!” Other non-retail related business located in the heart of downtown, however, took a different approach. For the most part, they took a two-week vacation. Others accommodated its employees with telecommuting services thereby allowing them to work from home and to interact with each other via modem-linked telephone connections.
When the games started, I went to celebrate with the raucous yet sympathetic crowd almost on a daily basis. The streets were filled with visitors from all over the world! Japan, Mexico, Australia, France, Italy, Sweden, Venezuela, Argentina, Canada, England, Brazil, and other countries around the globe were well represented. They populated the streets beyond their physical capacity. International Boulevard, appropriately named, was so heavily dense with bodies that, when swerving through the mob, one could not help bumping into other folks each step of the way. There were several large concert stages and a variety of festival sites lasting all day and throughout the two weeks the party was held. Underground had one concert stage and Centennial Olympic Park had at least two others, not to mention yet another off of International Boulevard. Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood, located at the crossing of International Blvd. and Peachtree St., were immensely popular. Jazz, Rock, Pop, Alternative, Classical, Blues, Country, Romantic, Rhythm and Blues, Mexican, Caribbean, and Reggae were but a few of the many different styles and flavors of music that were heard throughout the city. Men, women, and children were mostly in shorts and thin tank tops. Many of the guys had their t-shirts hanging down from their head to protect their neck and face from getting sunburned. In doing so, the chest, stomach, and back were bare to feel whatever breeze was available. Cowboy hats, baseball caps, and stylish beer-holding caps were popular items. Folks paraded around with portable battery-powered hand-held fans and water misters.
On Friday July 26, I, as I had done on previous days, went downtown again to enjoy the games and participate in the celebration. I dedicated the whole day for this activity. I parked at the crossing of 14th Street and I-75. I walked from that point to downtown, which is a good long hike. At around eight o’clock in the evening, I was still enjoying myself. I was, at that time, in Underground drinking a cool refreshing glass of coke, an expensive commodity. I then decided to stroll down to Centennial Olympic Park to join in the main festivities held there. It was dark and people were still all over the place. Many of them were deeply tanned, as I was, from the consistent daylong exposure to the hot summer sun. We were also drenched in sticky sweat, a consequence of the customary high humidity Atlanta is well known to have in the middle of summer. The music was blaring from the concert stage and I was beginning to feel tired. I looked for a bench near the stage to park my body for a while. My muscles were cramping a little from all the walking and the standing. Once seated, I found an electric pole nearby and reclined against it while watching and breathing in everything the environment around me had to offer.
The time now was about one in the morning and I was still sitting. I was saving energy to stand up and march all the way back to my car, which has proven, in the past few days, to take more than thirty-five to forty-five minutes to walk. Quite suddenly, about 20 minutes past one in the morning, A LOUD AND POWERFUL BLAST reverberated throughout the much-celebrated park. The thundering sound made the ground tremble. Subsequently, my hearing became impaired. Silent images and flashes of people under various lighting conditions quickly filled my tunneled vision as if in slow motion. The periphery surrounding these images was blurry and fuzzy. Time had slowed down and I was viewing it one frame at a time! “OH MY GOD!” “JESUS!” “MON DIEU!” “OH LORD!” “AHHHHH!” “DIOS!” Almost immediately after, I felt a momentary sharp pain in my leg. The crowd went wild. A peculiar odor permeated the park, like the smell of fireworks during the celebration of July 4. The aura of joyous excitement had turned chaotic. Men and women of all ages and races ran almost aimlessly in all directions. Many of them dove to the ground trying to seek cover under the benches throughout the park, under concession stands, and behind street poles.
Upon trying to get off my bench, my right leg felt numb and it could barely support my weight. I, consequently, opted to drop to the ground and roll under the bench. “Could this be a robbery? A gang-related attack? A police shoot-out?” I still did not know what was happening but the sense of danger was obviously prevalent. Attempting to run or even walk through the wild human pack would prove to be unsafe in it of itself anyway because people were already being trampled. I decided to look for people that were not going wild, as if in control, to identify them as possible assailants and start my journey in the opposite direction. I found no one fitting that description. Everybody seemed to be equally distressed and disconcerted. The assailants must have blended into the crowd to escape detection; a supposedly state-of-the-art security system was installed for the games.
As my hearing came back to life, I started to hear high-pitched sirens and commanding voices from what seemed to be official personnel. I could not really discern their exact meaning but I was able to locate their source. One of the guards, voicing what seemed to be gibberish at the time, was leading the crowd and, while doing so, gesturing to calm down and walk out of the park. I then stood up and started walking really fast. For some reason, in the heat of the moment, I completely forgot about the numbness in my leg and magically regained complete control of it. I felt the sudden rush of adrenaline flowing through my body. I could hear the rapid palpitations of my heart as I went through the mob: “Thump, thump. Thump, thump.” It also felt quite warm with little to no wind. Many more people than I anticipated were on the ground with spots of red on them and on the floor. After what seemed to be an eternity, my frail leg abruptly gave way and I fell to the floor. For several seconds, I felt and saw persons of different shapes and sizes walk all over me. I felt the smooth curvature of bare feet and the clasp of stiff toes as well as the wrinkled rubber soles of sneakers as they impressed on my stomach a lasting sensation. My arms were unexpectedly stretched tight, almost out of their sockets, and my back started itching and burning. I figured I was being dragged somewhere. As I slightly raised my head forward, I saw my leg leave a trail of blood behind me on the asphalt. “I have been shot! Good GOD, I HAVE BEEN SHOT! I CANNOT BELIEEEeeevv.”
“Explosives experts call it an ‘anti-personnel fragmentation device,’ but in Georgia, the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park Saturday is an all-too-familiar instrument of terror. In Georgia, the pipe bomb has a long and murderous history as a low-tech tool of mayhem favored by white supremacists and other political extremists… The bomb that exploded in the park Saturday was actually three pipe bombs packed with black gunpowder, nails and screws, sources told CNN… ‘Essentially it's a pipe,’ McGeorge said, ‘a plain old plumbing pipe, threaded ends with caps screwed to both ends. The components are available in any hardware store in the country.’ It could happen again…” 1
The television woke me. I was comfortable on my warm bed at home, under the covers. “Who brought me here?” The room looked as if nothing had happened but the news obviously had something different to say. I looked to my right and saw that my clothes were on the laundry basket inside the walk-in closet, as I usually put them when I come home late. I was also in my usual pajamas. “After what happened, who could have brought me home that could have known of my living habits?”
I proceeded to uncover myself to examine the extent of the damage on my leg. I know now that flying Shrapnel from a pipe bomb inflicted the injury. Much to my surprise and astonishment, I saw no evidence of medical treatment! Under further scrutiny, I realized that no scars were present. “Wait a minute! I did go downtown and I did join the Olympic festivities! But that’s riiight! I arrived home about two in the morning. That is when I watched the news and heard about the bomb that exploded half an hour after I left Centennial Olympic Park.” A tragedy that I almost, if not implicitly, experienced in its entirety!
“I THINK THEREFORE I AM,” Descartes says. But, in knowing that I am, as he proves, I really do not know if I am living reality or nearly dreaming it!
1 Ann Kellan et al, “Pipe bombs: low-tech, lethal tools of terror,” Web posted on:
http://cnn.com/US/9607/27/pipe.bomb.explain/index.html at 10:25 p.m. EDT July 27, 1996.