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ESPN staffers recall covering 1996 Olympics tragedy; new 30 for 30 Short tells story of bombing’s aftermath

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ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 Short documentary Judging Jewell examines the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing and the security guard, Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused of planting the bomb in Centennial Olympic Park. The film is published on Grantland.com.

Front Row caught up with some of the ESPN news production crew members who were in the truck on site Saturday, July 27, 1996, when the bombing occurred. Here are some of their thoughts on what transpired:

Jeff Schaetzel, currently an ESPN senior coordinating director, was director of ESPN’s SportsCenter coverage:
A few days earlier, a trash dumpster had been delivered and literally dropped adjacent to our truck; [the noise startled] us and prompted us to go outside. One of our first reactions to the explosion was to compare it to the dumpster. The explosion shook the truck – much more vigorously than the impact of the dumpster. No one was allowed to leave or relieve any of us, so we spent the entire day in the truck.

Remember that in 1996, there was no social media to contribute to the information flow, so the local papers were the primary source of context. It was indeed tragic that Jewell was targeted as a suspect, and it speaks to the overzealousness of the media and how dangerous that can be. I often wonder what would have transpired if this had occurred in today’s age of instant information and how that would have changed the results.

Michael Epstein, currently an ESPN coordinating producer, was an associate producer working on SportsCenter:
We were about 100 yards from the site of the bomb, taping segments for the late SportsCenter when we heard the explosion which shook the truck. We didn’t quite know what to make of it, but [former SportsCenter anchor] Chris Myers – who was our host that evening – alerted us to the fact that the sound came from the park and he could see the people running and the emergency personnel moving in.

We began broadcasting live from the truck at that point, and did not finish until very early in the morning. I think now I am more sad that an innocent man had to be put through something like that. I didn’t know a lot about the facts of the case at the time, but once we knew he was not the person I felt like he got a raw deal. He was a hero when you look at all the information now, and we should have praised him as such and he should be remembered as such.

Gus Ramsey, currently an ESPN coordinating producer, was producing the night coverage of the Olympics for SportsCenter:
In the end, after everything played out the way it did, I just remember feeling bad for Jewell. It was yet another example of people rushing to judgment and the damage that can be done to someone when that happens. No matter how long I am at ESPN – it’s been 19-plus years – or what I do here, that night will always be the most memorable of my career.

Also on site were current Senior Vice President and Executive Producer, Mark Gross, and anchor Chris McKendry. She recalls making her SportsCenter anchoring debut that day.

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