Sept. 11 forced Games questions in Park City: ‘Were the Olympics going to go forward?’
Attacks led to a reassessment of the security plans just months before opening ceremonies
On the evening of Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, upward of 150 people filed into the Santy Auditorium at the Park City Library for the first of a series of gatherings City Hall scheduled that were designed to outline steps officials were taking in an effort to reduce disruptions to the everyday lives of Parkites during the 2002 Winter Olympics the following February.
The crowd was told there would be an access-pass system for drivers in some locations designed to avoid Olympic traffic jams, the Games organizers would temporarily reinforce the City Hall transit fleet with 50-plus buses and parking would be heavily restricted. Topics like those by then had become widely debated as Park City entered the final months before the opening ceremonies.
Not even 12 hours after the gathering ended, on the morning of Sept. 11, it was clear the Olympic preparations would need to be reassessed to address a dramatically altered world after the attacks on the East Coast. And that was even if the Olympics occurred at all that February amid the worries.
“The central question was were the Olympics going to go forward,” Frank Bell, who was City Hall’s director of Olympic planning, said in an interview as the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 neared. “Everybody was scared. Everybody was nervous. We didn’t know what the country was going through.”
The terrorism that morning triggered deep concern about the safety of the Olympics. The Games planners throughout the years of preparations crafted a broad security net that brought together local, state and federal law enforcement resources. Bell himself was a former Park City police chief who in the 1990s had been tapped for the Olympic assignment. He was at work on Sept. 11, saying it took “about five minutes to figure out the world had changed.”
The security preparations had been mostly conducted outside of public view, as is typically the case, to protect the operational details. Suddenly, though, the community wanted information about security, as they earlier did regarding topics like parking and transit, but there was little beyond broad information that could be made public.
Bell recalled that the organizing committee that put on the Games would soon make a “collective decision” to hold the Olympics as scheduled after consulting with the federal government, the venue communities like Park City, sponsors and others involved in the event.
It was a crucial moment that acted to reassure the Olympic region. The Park City area was slated to host upward of 50% of the athletic competitions during the Games. Main Street was expected to be one of the popular celebration zones.
“I don’t remember anybody in the room who was interested in not doing the Olympics,” he said.
The attacks, though, forced a review of the security plans at a time when the officials would otherwise be poised to implement them. Bell said the administration of President George W. Bush readily agreed to provide additional resources beyond those that had already been planned. He said, as an example, more federal officers were assigned to protecting the venues, resulting in members of the Border Patrol being stationed in Park City for the Games.
“I don’t know if it helped. I certainly felt better,” he said.
As the visible preparations for the Games were underway, with stadiums and other temporary venues under construction, the security planners were also finalizing their work. Park City’s elected officials received a closed-door Olympic security briefing two days after the attacks. In October, the director of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command appeared at a forum in Park City, saying there were not any credible threats against the Olympics by then.
In the weeks before opening ceremonies, meanwhile, Tom Ridge, who directed homeland security for the president, and Attorney General John Ashcroft in quick succession separately stopped in the Park City area as they reviewed the overall Olympic security plans.
The Olympics ultimately were staged without a major security incident. Suspicious packages caused anxiety and drew law enforcement attention in Park City during the Games, and some of the Olympic visitors were startled when the loud, piercing 10 o’clock Whistle sounded on Main Street before it was silenced for the remainder of the Games.
Bell would leave City Hall in the summer of 2002 and later served as the town manager in the Colorado mountain resorts of Crested Butte and Telluride. He retired in 2020 after managing a homeowners association in California to cap his career and now lives in Wyoming.
“Those first four or five days after the attacks, they were remarkable days in the evolution of the city,” he said.
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A car collided with a dining deck on Main Street on Wednesday afternoon, causing extensive damage to one end of the structure and requiring the temporary closure of a small stretch of sidewalk.