Norfolk Southern cuts ribbon on HQ; GWCC unveils Richard Jewell tribute
By Maria Saporta
Two landmark events Wednesday morning weaved special tales of Atlanta’s history, its present and its future.
The first was the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Norfolk Southern’s new corporate headquarters in Midtown as dignitaries welcomed Atlanta’s newest Fortune 500 company.
The second was the unveiling of a memorial to Richard Jewell and law enforcement at Centennial Olympic Park — commending their actions the night of the bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. The tribute was organized by the Georgia World Congress Center, which owns Centennial Olympic Park.
Both events served as bookends of Atlanta’s evolution.
“It’s a great day in Georgia when a Fortune 500 company returns to its roots,” Gov. Brian Kemp said at the Norfolk Southern ribbon-cutting. Kemp then acknowledged his predecessor — former Gov. Nathan Deal, who he said “had a great part in getting Norfolk Southern to move here.”
Although not on the program, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock was able to adjust his schedule so he could address a lobby full of guests and VIPs.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” said Warnock, adding that Norfolk Southern plays a key role in Georgia’s economy. “I’m so glad we passed the infrastructure bill. America needs a home improvement project. This bill will invest billions of dollars in our rail infrastructure.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms remembered how her first ground-breaking was for the Norfolk Southern headquarters. Now at the ribbon-cutting, Bottoms said she was “blown away by what we see with this building.”
Jim Squires, chairman, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern, told the gathering how proud he was for the company to now call Atlanta home. He praised the city’s diverse population and workforce and called Midtown a technology hub.
“This brings us closer to many of our largest customers — UPS, Southern Co. and Mercedes-Benz,” Squires said. “Our company has a long history here. A new chapter. Once again, we will make Atlanta a center for railroad innovation.”
Norfolk Southern, with 19,000 miles of rail in the Eastern part of the United States, reaches more than half of the U.S. population.
Moments after the ribbon was cut, a long-awaited unveiling was taking place at Centennial Olympic Park for the memorial honoring security guard Richard Jewell, who spotted the backpack containing the bomb.
Special Agent-in-Charge Tom Davis with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations recalled the night of the bombing and how Jewell identified the stray backpack and reached out for support. When officials agreed it looked suspicious, a decision was made to establish a perimeter and move people away from the backpack.
“We had one death,” Davis said of Alice Hawthorn, who died as a result of the bomb. “It was a surreal moment for all of us. Had Richard Jewell not been there that night and had he not seen the backpack, I’m absolutely convinced that the death toll at Centennial Olympic Park would have been a lot higher that night.”
After the injured were taken from the park, Davis remembered Jewell coming up to him and saying: “We did good, didn’t we?” Davis responded to Jewell: “We did.”
Kent Alexander, who co-authored the book The Suspect, shared what happened next — how Jewell became a suspect and how that news was leaked to a hungry press, eventually going viral because of all the news organizations already in Atlanta to cover the Olympic Games. Eventually Jewell was exonerated — and Eric Rudolph ended up being convicted for planting the bomb on the night of July 27, 1996.
“Richard Jewell was absolutely a hero,” Alexander said.
The memorial event included two legendary leaders of Atlanta’s Olympics history — former Mayor Andrew Young, who was a co-chair of the Games, and Billy Payne, who led to the effort to bring the Games to Atlanta.
Jewell’s mother, Bobi Jewell as well as his widow, Dana Jewell, were among the attendees at the unveiling.
Also present was Todd Hill of DTJ Design, the designer of the tribute — a sculpture with a translucent panel that stretches toward the sky and is punctuated with a law enforcement star. The tribute appears to be floating in a shallow pool that’s part of the restored “Quilt of Remembrance” and enhanced “Light of Peace” monument. The “Quilt” has 111 pavers honoring all the people who were injured by the blast — some of whom were working in law enforcement.
“It would be easy to be sad at the tragedy that occurred here, but we have a way of celebrating adversity,” Young said, adding that we were here “to say thank you” to law enforcement officers “who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us.”
Payne, who envisioned turning an area of surface parking lots and mostly vacant low-rise buildings into Centennial Olympic Park in time for the Games, looked back at the bombing and the reopening of the park two days later.
“Let there be no doubt, Richard Jewell saved countless lives,” Payne said. “I can vividly remember two days after the bombing when we reopened the park. I can remember the exact words that Andy said: ‘Out of darkest tragedy often emerges our brightest triumph.’”