The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: The bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
August 9, 2016
Southern Torch (3793 articles)

The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: The bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

An eyewitness recalls the 1996 bombing of Olympic Centennial Park

JoJo Headshot - High-res

Editor & Publisher Joseph M. Morgan

Editor’s note: The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio have taken center stage in the U.S. and around the world. But for those of us in the South, 2016 also reminds us that this year’s Olympic Games mark the 20th Anniversary of “Our Olympic year,”—the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games—the first and only time the Deep South has been afforded the opportunity to host on this world stage.  Dr. John E. Morgan has written a brief series of articles based on his own Olympic experiences 20 years ago. At the 1996 Olympics Morgan worked alongside and provided support, directions and sanctuary to journalists from all over the world, providing Media Relations services for the IOC at the IOC Main Press Center.  On Friday, July 27, 1996, Morgan, his wife, and two teenage sons were about to walk out the front doors of the IOC Main Press Center when the terrorist’s bombs went off just feet away, directly across the street at Olympic Centennial Park where his sons had stood only moments before. This is his story.



By: Dr. John E. Morgan

Dr. John E. Morgan and wife Gloria Morgan at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. 

ATLANTA, Ga.—FRIDAY, JULY 27, 1996—It was a great family night in the middle of the celebration known as the Olympics. My wife and I and two of our sons, aged 15 and 17, had ridden Marta into downtown Atlanta at the height of the Games. The area was full of people coming and going to events.  Tickets could be found for any event. We got one ticket to see the Dream Team play and a couple of tickets for Volleyball.    

We were in the brand new Olympic Park, the triangle of land between the Omni, the Congress Center, the Georgia Dome and The Main Press Center where I was working during the Olympics.

The crowd was excited. There was a shared camaraderie in being at the Olympics.  We were all proud that Atlanta and the South had pulled it off. The Olympics were an obvious success.  A little Southern Pride had been well earned.  And the park was the place to be.  Kind of like a post game tailgate party after your team wins.

CentennialWe walked around the park looking at displays and at children playing in the fountains.  At the north end of the park, music was coming from the bands and performers of the night.  We wandered over to where Olympic pins were being traded.

When our youngest son came back from the basketball game, he was excited about seeing the Dream Team and all of his basketball heroes—Grant Hill, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Penny Hardaway,  David Robinson, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon…the list goes on and on. As if that hadn’t been incredible enough, he went on to tell us that at halftime after sneaking into the owners elevator, he’d met Scottie Pippen’s brother at the game (a fact later confirmed by photograph), recognizing him from a TV interview just days earlier about the Dream Team and their families. He told us the story about how he’d introduced himself on the elevator ride up to the owners suites, got some photos on the way, and somehow talked his way into watching the second half of the Dream Team vs. China at the 1996 Olympic Games from the Pippen families’ skybox.

After both sons were accounted for, my wife and I left them in the park to listen to the live music, take part in the celebratory festivities, and have fun as I went to work.  We walked over to the Press Center where I was able to get her into the very restricted building.  Security was everywhere.  Uniformed guards at all the entries, all the elevators and everywhere around the floor.  You were never out of sight of security.

An hour or so later, I was called to the Main Press Center building’s entry.  Our sons were standing there, back from the park. Someone in the crowd had broken a beer bottle.  My younger son’s toe was cut open and was bleeding profusely.  The manager let our sons in to get help from the medical staff on the second floor.  The night of fun had been ruined by one person’s carelessness. That made me mad.

In less than five minutes, the medics (our sons being in the building was a breach of security, despite the injury) quickly stopped the bleeding and bandaged the toe.  But our sons’ night of celebration and fun was over. We could hear the music still blaring just across the street.  It was after one in the morning.  Time for my family to leave. We started down the hallway.

ATFinATL96As we were on our way out of the building, the bomb exploded.  Our building shook as the noise reached us.  I knew what it was immediately.  We turned into the large corner room.  The walls were glass.  We walked over and looked down into the park.  The explosion had been about fifty yards from where we now stood.  We were looking down on the carnage as the crowd was still scattering.  Medical teams and security teams were rushing to the spot.

My first thought was that my sons would have been right there listening to the bands except for a broken bottle.  Coincidence?  Good luck? You can interpret it as you choose.  My wife and I choose to believe it is providential that our children were safe.  It is interesting that we can be angry about broken bottles in our lives.  And then thankful for them.  We are to trust God.  Even when we do not understand.

ATLBombBAs we stared down at the Park, a man ran in the room and yelled at us to get away from the windows.  Now!  He was the chief of security in the building.  He knew that bombers sometimes set off a second, stronger bomb to kill more people.

We were surprised when we looked at TV to see coverage about the bomb. There wasn’t any.  They didn’t know yet.

Within 10 minutes our building was locked down by the FBI.  Nobody in or out.  Our family spent the night in the building.  Thankful to be with each other. Thankful to be alive.

There was a press conference about 5 a.m.  The locked doors meant we were short-handed because the next shift of workers could not enter the building.  My sons were drafted to help hand out headsets for international reporters to get translations.

1101960805_400The Conference was very brief.  On the stage one of the officials looked into the television cameras and said, “First of all, the Games will go on.  I repeat.  The Games will go on.”  The conference lasted about three minutes.  We in the room knew that it was being seen all over the world.  We had pride in putting it together in such difficult circumstances.

The building was opened later in the morning.  We made our way back up the streets to catch the train to where our car was parked.  We had to make a block detour.  A bomb disposal unit was investigating a paper bag on the sidewalk.  It would have been ignored twelve hours earlier.

We knew that the Games would go on.  But we knew that something had changed.

Twenty years later I am still overwhelmed by the thought of how close two of our boys were to being next to that bomb.  We are thankful to have them.  And thankful for shared memories of that terrible, wonderful night.


Southern Torch

Southern Torch


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