A home-grown white man with an American accent emerged Saturday as the prime suspect in the shattering of the Olympic Games and a city’s dreams by exploding a deadly pipe bomb in a crowded central city park.
The bomb burst late on a summer’s party night, sending deadly nails and shrapnel flying as families, children and visitors from around the world were enjoying the one public Olympic space in Atlanta that did not require photo IDs, metal detectors and security screenings to enter.
The blast left behind a grisly scene of blood and smoke and sickly fear. The explosion took one life directly - a 44-year-old woman from Albany, Ga. - and a second when a Turkish television cameraman died from a heart attack. Some 111 others were injured in the explosion.
What made the bomb especially devastating was its location, smack in the heart of the Centennial Olympic Park, a place of concerts and laughter and pin-trading and big-screen videos, a place where ordinary people without access to expensive Olympic tickets could still gather and feel a part of the Games.
Terror had violated the world’s games by descending on the vulnerable heart of the global village square. Whoever placed the bomb efficiently skirted the strict security measures in place at all the official Olympics venues by the simplest means of all: choosing another, softer target.
Scores of federal, state and city investigators fanned out across the blood-spattered park in a search for clues and remnants of what authorities said were three crude pipe bombs that had been stashed inside a knapsack and left at the base of a temporary TV platform.
Across the nation, Americans still stunned by the baffling crash of TWA Flight 800 were left with a stinging new sense of vulnerability as authorities searched for reasons why someone would strike at the Atlanta Games, the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic movement.
The FBI raced to analyze a recording of a 911 warning call that came in just minutes before the blast. Officials declined to release details of the call but confirmed that they were studying a white male’s voice that lacked any distinguishable accent and appeared to be American. No immediate claims of responsibility were reported.
The Games, meanwhile, went on, although some of Saturday’s events were delayed by increased security sweeps at their venues. Flags were lowered to half-staff, and attendance at some venues was diminished. But it was not clear whether this was due to pouring rain for much of the day or fear of further attacks.
“We will track them down. We will bring them to justice,” President Clinton said in Washington, where he had returned from an Olympic visit barely 24 hours before the attack. He noted that his daughter, Chelsea, had visited the park where the bomb exploded “quite often” to trade commemorative Olympic pins.
Soon after the 1:25 a.m. Saturday bombing, an army of security personnel tightened its net around the Olympics, halfway through the two-week schedule. For the first time, heavily armed soldiers were deployed at competition venues. Tougher security checks caused delays and long lines.
“We must go into a different mode, a much more heightened sense of awareness,” said Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.
Atlanta Fire Department Lt. Edwin Higginbotham identified the bombing victim as Alice S. Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Ga. Her 14-year-old daughter, who had been standing with her in the park, was hospitalized in stable condition with arm and leg wounds.
Turkish broadcasting officials said one of their cameramen, Melih Uzunyol, 40, died of a heart attack while running to film the explosion’s aftermath.
Most of the 111 injured suffered minor wounds or shock, officials said. Only 11 were taken to hospital, all in stable condition. At least two underwent surgery for shrapnel in their torsos.
The explosion was the first terrorism at the Olympics since the Munich Games of 1972, when Palestinians seized Israeli athletes in an attack that left 18 people dead.
Investigators Saturday were sorting through phone tips, interviewing witnesses and searching the Centennial Olympic Park for clues, paying special attention to the pay phone just two blocks from the park where the bomber is believed to have called 911.
“We are not focused in any particular direction at this point in time,” FBI spokesman Woody Johnson told a news conference.
Although authorities were not ruling out any scenario, there were a number of indicators that pointed to a domestic attacker rather than a foreign terrorist.
First, the crudeness and simplicity of the pipe bombs were reminiscent of similar devices favored by white supremacists and other extremists, particularly in the South. In 1989, nail-studded pipe bombs sent in the mail killed a federal appellate judge in Alabama and a civil rights leader in Georgia.
Just three months ago, two Georgia men, members of an anti-government militia group, were arrested for making pipe bombs on their rural property outside Macon.
The arrest became a national news story after CBS reported that the bombs were intended for the Olympic Games. But authorities scoffed at the report, saying instead that Robert Starr 3rd and William James McCranie Jr. intended to bury the bombs in their back yard in the event of a “war” with the federal government.
Terrorism experts also pointed to the likelihood of the bomber being a right-wing extremist, an embittered loner or just a crank.
“I don’t think it fits the classic modus operandi of a terrorist group,” said Bob McGuire, a former New York City police commissioner who now works as a security consultant for Kroll Associates, a New York-based private security firm. “When I first heard about it, I sort of concluded that it was somebody with an ax to grind, a lone ranger.”
It seems unlikely, noted Leonard Weinberg, a domestic terrorism expert at the University of Nevada/ Reno, “that a foreign terrorist would come thousands of miles from Europe or the Middle East to detonate a crude pipe bomb.”
Foreign terrorists typically use plastic explosives or military-style bombs, the experts said, though they warned that it was far too soon to dismiss any possible suspects.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THEY SAID IT Reactions to the explosion at Centennial Olympic Park: “It was like a shockwave hit us. The next thing you know, we saw people on the ground.” - Ron Oterok, police officer “We will track them down. We will bring them to justice. We will see that they are punished.” - President Clinton “The games will go on.” - Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee