The Boston Marathon bombings were the deadliest terrorist incident in the United States since the September 11 attacks in 2001. But they are more similar to the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.
While it appears no Miami Valley runners were seriously injured Monday in Boston - where the two blasts near the marathon finish line have claimed three lives and injured more than 170 - we did have people from here who were seriously hurt and killed at the World Trade Center in 2001 and Atlanta five years before that.
Six University of Dayton grads - Kristy Irvine Ryan (1993 grad), Mary Lenz Wieman (’80), Al Niedermetyer II (’83), Joe Zuccala (’68), David Wiswall (’69) and William Even Wilson (’65) - were killed when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
In the Atlanta bombing - which caused two deaths and injured 110 - two of the people who suffered the most serious injuries were a pair of friends from here: Lynn Smith, the former Yellow Springs athlete, college coach and later an Olympic coach of note, and Eric Johnson, a top Yellow Springs athlete himself once, who then lived in Dayton and worked at Lexis-Nexis.
I covered both the Atlanta and the World Trade Center attacks for this paper and wrote many stories about the events and our victims, especially Kristy Irvine Ryan and Mary Lenz Wieman, as well as Lynn Smith and Eric Johnson.
I’ve reprinted the story I did from Eric’s bedside at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta the day after the Olympic bombing. Many of those scenes and feelings eerily resonate through the events in Boston now.
Before you get to that story though, a couple of points stand out from those past stories - points I hope come into play again now.
While the bombs severely injured and killed some of us, the “heinous and cowardly act” - as President Obama so rightly called it - will not blow apart our society, who we are, what we believe and how we live our lives.
Whether the terrorists turn out to be domestic - as was the case in Atlanta and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 - or foreign forces as were the attackers in 9/11, they should not and will not force us to cower behind closed doors and hide. That is the way they operate. They hate are open society.
From my stories, two incidents come to mind.
Although he was badly injured in Atlanta and it took in a long time to mend - physically and otherwise - I remember standing there with Smith that day in 2008 at the Beijing Games when he finally stepped inside an Olympic venue again.
The 1996 bombing had happened just a few hours after he had gotten to Atlanta so - except for a Dream Team basketball game and Centennial Park - he never really got to experience the Olympics. But in Beijing, there he was in the front row at the Olympic Stadium. He was the coach of Hyleas Fountain , the then Kettering resident, who would win the silver medal in the heptathlon.
Until I brought it up, he said he had never thought about the day in terms of reclaiming what had been stolen from him in 1996.
“I’ve just been living my life, doing what I love,” he said.
I remember a similar sentiment coming from Marc Wieman - Mary’s husband and himself a UD grad - when I talked to him again in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the WTC attacks.
“Everybody has tragedies in their lives,” he said. “Ours isn’t any more tragic than yours. It’s just more public. We don’t want anybody’s pity, but prayers? They are always welcome.”
And then he told me about some outside advice he gotten, advice he and his kids try to follow every day:
“Somebody I know told me, ‘You have to learn to live with the grief, not in it.’ That’s what we are trying to do.”
Here is my story after the Atlanta Olympic bombing:
INJURED FAN ASKS: ‘WHY?’
He lay on his side, his fingers limply wrapped around the metal railing of his hospital bed, plastic tubes running into his nose, abdomen and arms.
“It hurts when I breathe,” Eric Johnson whispered drowsily, his eyelids drifting nearly shut, then opening again. “I got shrapnel from the bomb in my stomach and colon … It hurts so much.”
The former Yellow Springs High basketball player who now works for Lexis-Nexis south of Dayton slowly extended his fingers. He wanted to touch the hand of someone from home. Anything to regain a familiar feel.
Beyond the window of his sixth-floor room at Grady Health Systems hospital - out there in that gray, rainy day that fit the mood of this city in shock - a big billboard beckoned:
It was a joyous greeting to the Olympic Games of Atlanta. Johnson couldn’t see it from his bed, and it was just as well.
The message had little meaning to him. The Olympic welcome he got nearly killed him.
Johnson and Lynn Smith, who also grew up in Yellow Springs, were seriously injured when a pipe-bomb blast ripped through downtown Atlanta’s crowded Centennial Olympic Park at 1:25 a.m. Saturday.
Alice Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Ga., died in the blast and 40-year-old Turkish TV cameraman Melih Uzunyol died of a heart attack as he ran to film the scene. At least 100 people were injured, with Johnson and Smith two of the most seriously wounded.
Johnson had stomach surgery and Smith, one nurse said Saturday afternoon, had lung injuries and still was in the operating room.
As for official word on the condition of the two Miami Valley men, hospital administrators said no information will be released. Police and security guards had set up a perimeter that kept an international media horde beyond the hospital doors.
“We’d been out in the park not even two hours,” Johnson said quietly. “We were having a good time.”
The USA Dream Team basketball game with China they attended at the nearby Georgia Dome had ended 90 minutes earlier and much of that crowd had poured into the already crowded Centennial Park, where the Jack Mack and the Heart Attack band was giving an outdoor concert.
It was a beautiful night, cooler than usual, with a big round moon above. As had been the case since the Olympic Games opened, the mood in the new 21-acre park was festive.
Ringed by tall, gleaming office buildings and Olympic arenas, the park - with free concerts, brightly lit corporate pavilions and that decorative fountain where people danced in the refreshing spray - had become the centerpiece of Atlanta’s Summer Games’ celebration.
Unfortunately it was an area where security was weakest. Unlike the Olympic venues or the massive media center across the street, people entered the park without having their bags X-rayed or hand-checked. No access badges or tickets were needed to come in.
“It was one of our greatest gathering places for the Games,” said Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. “That has been dampened”.
The bomb apparently was hidden in a leather bag left at the base of a light tower near the AT&T Global Village stage. A threat was called into a 911 operator from a bank of phones two blocks away. Before the bomb could be defused, it went off, sending nails, screws and other metal flying.
Confusion soon turned to panicked chaos and many in the crowd of some 30,000 tried to flee the park. Authorities and park revelers tried to help the injured who lay crumpled, dazed and bloodied in the area. Once rescue squads - lights flashing, sirens wailing - made their way into the congested area, many of the injured were transported to Grady.
With dawn’s first light, it was evident that these Olympics were suddenly cast in darkness. The pipe bomb may have been a crude device, but it managed to greatly wound the Olympic spirit.
Where once there had been music, food and frivolity, there now was yellow police tape, armed soldiers and security men and everywhere grim faces.
“There is no today to compare to yesterday,” Paul Larsen, who runs a souvenir tent just outside Centennial Park said as he looked at the empty street in front of him. “Yesterday is gone … for good.”
Saturday morning’s explosion tapped into a deep sense of uneasiness that has settled over America lately. After the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings - and the downing of TWA Flight 800 - comes a strike that the FBI is calling “a terrorist attack.”
Although competition continued Saturday - “The Games WILL go on,” an ashen Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee announced around 4 a.m Saturday - the damage was done.
Atlanta now looks like Beirut.
“These are now the tainted games,” Matt Ghaffari, the American silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, said Saturday. “Now when people say 1996, they’re not going to remember the medals we won. They’re going to remember this is the place where they had a terrorist attack.”
Campbell admitted, “That was our one greatest fear. It’s a terrible tragedy that casts a long shadow over our celebration.”
Because of the violent times in which we live, Atlanta Olympic organizers privately worried about someone commandeering the Games’ world stage to advance their own bloody agenda.
It had happened at the 1972 Games in Munich when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes.
This past April, there were reports that members of a Georgia militia group who were arrested for allegedly building a cache of pipe bombs had their sights set on the Olympics.
And at the Opening Ceremonies nine days ago, a man wearing a bogus security uniform and carrying a .45-caliber pistol and 11 rounds of ammunition eluded security and sneaked into the Olympic Stadium, where thousands of athletes and several heads of state, including President Bill Clinton, were in attendance. The guy was arrested.
Campbell admitted that since the Games began organizers have received several threats. All, he claimed, had been checked out and found to be mere rhetoric.
Atlanta Olympic chief Billy Payne even boasted that his city would be the safest in the world during the Games. And much was made of the 30,000-member security force and the advanced security devices.
Yet, nine days into the Games, many in the media can tell you of times they were permitted into venues without a bag being checked or when a trading pin rather than a ticket gained passage.
Such breaches are being addressed and the IOC said security changes will come in order for the Games to go on. And they must go on, say many involved.
“To walk away from these Games now and let the ass who did this get away with it cannot happen,” said Dream Team basketball player Charles Barkley. “This is the greatest sporting event in the world. We can’t let whoever did this hold us hostage”
Ghaffari agreed: “I can’t tell you how sad I am. I’m ashamed as a person, as a human being. I’d like to kick the guy’s butt who did this.”
Rick Janus, a sales representative from Mt. Laurel, N.J., showed up at Centennial Park - which was closed Saturday - with his wife and two young daughters:
“I was here by myself earlier last night and saw the way Centennial Park was and what a great, warm feeling you got. I couldn’t wait to get my children here to see it.”
His voice trailed off as he looked at the barricades blocking their path: “I’m afraid they won’t see it that way … ever again.”
A few blocks away - in a hospital surrounded by police - Eric Johnson lay in a quiet room. Hooked up to tubes, his midsection bound in bandages, his Olympic dream numbed by pain killers, he looked up sadly and whispered one word: