Centennial Olympic Park bombing: Looking back 26 years later

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 27: This dawn 27 July photo shows the five-story sound tower (L) in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park where a bomb exploded early 27 July during a rock concert. Two people were killed and 110 injured by the blast. (Photo credit s

More than a quarter-century has passed since an explosive device detonated in a crowded park amid festivities during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

If not for the tragedy, the Centennial Olympic Games might have been remembered for the triumphant efforts of American athletes. The United States led the Summer Olympics in total medals and gold medals. The games featured dramatic moments, like when gymnast Kerri Strug made a vault with torn ligaments in her left ankle to help the U.S. women clinch their first-ever Olympic team gold medal.

History, however, remembers the games for the tragic event that happened days later when a bomb exploded in the Downtown Atlanta park, the center of Olympic festivities.


The blast killed two people and injured more than 100 others. 

A man who tried to help save lives during the bombing was suddenly shrouded with suspicion and placed under a media microscope. 

It would be years before the alleged Olympic Park bomber was arrested.

Centennial Olympic Park bombing investigation

UNITED STATES - JULY 27: Terrorist Bombing: 1996 Summer Olympics, View of Olympic flags at half mast memorializing death and injuries suffered during bomb explosion at Olympic Centennial Stadium, Atlanta, GA 7/27/1996 (Photo by David E. Klutho/Sports

There was an explosion during a concert at Centennial Olympic Park in Downtown Atlanta on July 27, 1996.

Alice Hawthorne died in the explosion. Melih Uzunyol, a Turkish television cameraman, died after suffering a heart attack while running to film the aftermath of the blast.

Authorities estimated more than 100 people were injured directly in the blast.

"The Games will go on," said Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee.

Investigators said the 40-pound pipe bomb exploded around 1:20 a.m.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 30: A woman places flowers 30 July at the site at the Olympic Centennial Park where a bomb exploded early 27 July. Olympic officials reopened the park 30 July. (Photo credit should read JOEL ROBINE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Associated Press spoke to people who witnessed the chaos. 

"The security guard found a knapsack or nylon bag and didn’t like the way it looked,″ said Mark Smith, who was mixing the music where the guard was posted. "The police started clearing the area. I was 50 feet away and there was a policeman about 30 feet away from it.

"I saw the cop right in front of me take a huge piece of shrapnel. He got hit bad. One guy threw a towel on his head. I poured water on him to wash away some of the blood. He was lying face down and he wasn’t moving. I saw 10 pockets of people hit by what appears to be shrapnel.″

Months after the bombing, the FBI released tape of a caller warning law enforcement there was a bomb in the park. The 911 call was placed just before the fatal July 27 blast, federal officials said in 1997.

A man was seemingly heard saying, "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes."

Who was the alleged Olympic Park bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph?

An FBI wanted poster of Eric Robert Rudolph.

An FBI wanted poster of Eric Robert Rudolph. (FBI)

Eric Robert Rudolph pleaded guilty to the Centennial Park bombing and three others and is serving multiple life sentences at a "supermax" federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

A different bombing helped lead authorities to Rudolph. A witness allegedly described Rudolph and tracked him from another bombing at a clinic in downtown Birmingham on Jan. 29, 1998. 

Authorities arrested the man behind a grocery store in 2003 in Murphy, North Carolina.

In 2005, Rudolph was sentenced in Birmingham, Alabama, to life in prison for the abortion clinic bombing that killed an off-duty police officer and maimed a nurse.

In 2020, Rudolph sought to change his guilty plea in the bombings at Olympic Park and an Alabama women’s clinic, saying he should be able to change his plea because part of the offense is no longer considered a federal crime.

Who was Richard Jewell?

UNITED STATES - JULY 23: Terrorist Bombing: 1996 Summer Olympics, Closeup of security guard Richard Jewell during reopening of Centennial Olympic Park after bomb explosion, Jewell was falsely implicated, but later cleared, Atlanta, GA 7/27/1996 (Phot

Jewell was allegedly in the park at the time of the explosion. He was found not to have been involved in the bombing plot, but preliminary investigative details and reports led the public down a path that disgraced the man’s name.

Jewell allegedly spotted an abandoned backpack during the concert in Centennial Olympic Park and helped clear the area before the explosion. 

Jewell, who likely helped prevent more casualties, was initially hailed as a hero. A few days later, a newspaper reported he was the focus of the FBI investigation of the bombing and the public turned on him.

It was months before his name was publicly cleared. 

Authors of the 2019 book, "The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle", explain the fallout of the investigation. Kent Alexander was the U.S. attorney in Atlanta when the bombing happened and Kevin Salwen led The Wall Street Journal’s southeastern section. The book explains Jewell's actions and tips had made the FBI suspicious at the time. 

Ultimately, the FBI determined he couldn’t have made the 911 call reporting the bomb blocks away from his post at the park. Alexander said he sent a letter to one of Jewell’s attorneys saying he was not a target of the investigation. By that time, his reputation had been ruined.


Jewell was 44 years old when he died in 2007. His widow, Dana Jewell, said he brought a rose to the park each year on the anniversary of the bombing.

memorial stands at the park in honor of Jewell and first responders. There was a dedication ceremony after the 25th anniversary of the bombing in 2021. 

"I wish he was here to see this," Dana Jewell said on the day of the dedication. "I know that he sees what’s going on and he’s proud of it. He’s with us today."

Director Clint Eastwood criticized over "Richard Jewell" film

The film debuted in 2019 and called out media and federal investigators in the aftermath of the bombing. 

"It’s always tragic when people run off with half information and don’t really have the truth set up in front of them," Director Clint Eastwood said in an interview with the Associated Press. "The press is sometimes in a hurry because there’s so much competition to be the first to do something."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution disputed the depiction of the paper’s staff in "Richard Jewell." An Atlanta Journal-Constitution oped disputed the film’s portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs. The Eastwood movie implies she had sex with an FBI agent for a tip on the story. Scruggs reported Jewell was the focus of the FBI investigation, leading to a swarm of media attention.

"I think the Atlanta Journal (sic) probably would be the one group that would be sort of complexed about that whole situation because they are the ones who printed the first thing of there being a crime caused by Richard Jewell," Eastwood told the Associated Press. "And so they’re probably looking for ways to rationalize their activity. I don’t know for sure. I haven’t — never discussed it with anyone from there..."