In the early hours of July 27, 1996, a crowd of concert attendees were enjoying a night of free music when they were suddenly jarred by an exploding pipe bomb, hidden away in a nondescript backpack. What was supposed to be a lighthearted night out during the Summer Olympic Games quickly turned into a scene of terror. Two innocent bystanders were killed, and more than 100 people were injured. Casualties likely would have been much higher, but security guard Richard Jewell alerted authorities about the backpack, and many people were able to leave the area before the bomb detonated. At the time, terrorist events were a much less frequent occurrence, and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing sent shockwaves throughout Georgia and around the world.
Chuck Ray, director of field operations for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA/HS), worked as a field coordinator in the State Operations Center at the time of the bombing. He can vividly recall that night in July as he and his colleagues were nearing shift change after another full day of monitoring the Olympics. For months leading up to the games, various state and local agencies worked together to train and plan, including an emphasis on how to react to domestic violence following the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. However, he says they never expected that a bombing would impact Georgia.
“When the bomb went off, it changed the way we thought about terror,” Ray said. Ray remembers his colleagues saying, “It’s home now. It’s here with us.”
In the months and years following that tragic night, our state and nation have become increasingly aware that large acts of violence can occur at any time, and without warning. Our mindset has changed and we know that no one person or community is immune to the possibility of danger.
“The age of innocence is gone,” said Ray. “In the past, we were pretty well protected from mass casualty events, but today we need to make our communities as a whole aware and prepared. And part of that is not being afraid to say something if you see something.”
Ray adds that the bombing provided us with critical takeaways on how to be prepared and aware during emergencies. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the event, these lessons still ring true. For example, he recommends being confident enough to alert the authorities to any suspicious behavior you might observe, even if it’s a strange vehicle circling your neighborhood or an unexpected package sitting on your doorstep. He urges citizens to trust their intuition. If you notice something out of place in your day-to-day life, alert law enforcement immediately. We can all play a role in helping to keep our communities safe.