The outrage, the worst at the Olympics since 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian guerrillas in Munich in 1972, bore all the hallmarks of America's own right-wing extremists. The FBI said a warning of the crude but deadly home-made bomb was given by a caller "with the accent of a white American male".
The attack brought anger and condemnation from world leaders, led by a grim-faced President Clinton, who called the bombing "an evil act of terror" and vowed the bombers would be hunted down. Once caught, they should face the death penalty, he said.
Although the President called for the Olympic spirit to prevail, and a decision was quickly taken to proceed with the Games, the explosion stunned a country already grappling with the unexplained destruction of TWA Flight 800 10 days ago, and distressed by allegations that the management of the Olympics has been a fiasco.
The attack defeated the largest peace-time security operation in US history, which has seen no fewer than 30,000 security personnel drafted into Atlanta. It will further deepen the sense of vulnerability among Americans, who see their country suddenly becoming a prime target for terrorists. Until recently, most Americans considered terrorism a foreign phenomenon.
However, it was home-grown terrorists, the right-wing militiamen believed to have killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing last year, who immediately fell under suspicion of having planted the bomb. It was a home-made anti-personnel fragmentation device, probably a pipe filled with nails and screws, contained in a knapsack.
It cut down a crowd of young people enjoying a rock concert in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, the one part of the city where security was relaxed.
A "calm-voiced" telephone caller, using a nearby booth, alerted police to the bomb,but the 18-minute warning was insufficient. The device exploded at 1.20am (6.20am British time) while police were still clearing the park.
The bomb was placed at the foot of the lighting and sound tower by the stage where the rock band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack were playing. Witnesses spoke of "rivers of blood" where scores of people lay injured. One woman had her legs blown off at the knees and an armless body was still lying in a pool of blood hours after the explosion. David Loya, a doctor, described the scene as "absolute hell and carnage". Last night, dozens of people were in hospital, including one man in a critical condition after undergoing surgery to remove shrapnel from his chest and abdomen.
The dead woman, named last night as Alice Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Georgia, died of "multiple penetration injuries", according to the local medical examiner's office. A Turkish TV cameraman, Melih Uzonyol, died of a heart attack while rushing to the scene.
An evacuation was started after a security guard spotted the suspect knapsack. Mark Smith, an audio technician with the rock band, said the guard informed police, who began clearing the area. "I was 50ft away," he said. "I saw a cop get hit in front of me. He took a huge piece of shrapnel. He was face down and not moving."
The British Olympic swimming team had left the park only minutes earlier. The swimmer Karen Pickering said they had just sat down in a bar when the news flashed up. "It was pretty shocking. We weren't sure who was there and who was not. We had finished up on such a high note with Graeme Smith picking up the bronze medal. Right now, gold medals seem really unimportant," she said.
The deaths cast a cloud of gloom over "Super Saturday" - the most important day of the Olympics so far, with major events including the 100-metre sprint. Flags flew at half-mast and there was a minute's silence before competition began.Reuse content