News 12 at 11 o'clock, May 10, 2010
BRUNSWICK, Ga.---Not very far from Augusta, future federal agents are training for a very dangerous mission. They're getting ready for a career where their own lives will be at risk investigating all kinds of crime. They're willing to take their chances when they wear the three letters that will set them apart from every other branch of law enforcement: ATF.
At the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynn County, Georgia, the mission is simple: training those who protect our homeland. On any given day, that can be any one of 88 different agencies, from the people who protect the capitol to the ones who patrol the borders.
The center is also home to the ATF National Academy.
"Now, we're more in the forefront," said Academy Deputy Chief "Fuzzy" Zellers. "Everybody knows who ATF is. When I first came on, they said 'who?' They didn't know what ATF was."
ATF stands for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But the ATF may be most well-known for investigating explosions. On this day, the agents are setting up an explosives demonstration of what may be the most dangerous field in the world. They're out there working with some very dangerous stuff and setting up a show and tell that'll knock your socks off.
More about that in a minute, but first you need to know more about the agent they call "Fuzzy" and the night in 1996 he will never forget.
Today, he's the Deputy Chief of the ATF National Academy. But back then he was an ATF Agent assigned to the Atlanta Olympic Games. Olympic security saw a suspicious backpack and called in the ATF team.
"Oh, very fresh. Very fresh in my mind," Zellers said. "Something I'll never forget. That's for sure."
News 12: "You looked in. You saw the bomb."
Zellers: "Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I did."
News 12: "What were your feelings at that second?"
Zellers: "Quite scary. I just had to talk to myself and say, 'Let's take of this. Don't be scared and just rely on your training to take over.' "
To make matters worse, it was next to an outdoor stage where there was live music. Getting people away from the danger was a challenge.
Zellers remembers, "The music was so loud, we had to scream at each other. We couldn't hear each other talk."
Agents were still pushing people away when the bomb exploded. Two people died, one from a heart attack. More than 100 were injured. And Agent Zellers knows he did everything he could.
"I'll tell you, I've gone through that in my mind, I can't tell you how many times--and even now it gives me shivers up and down the back of my spine," Zellers said.
Which brings us back to the training field. It's now wired for a very dangerous demonstration. The purpose is to teach the next generation of ATF agents what to expect when it's their turn to look in the bag.
Instructor and ATF explosives expert Mark Wade shows students some pretty dangerous stuff. Just the kind of stuff that would get you arrested in any airport. He wants to make sure these future agents know it when they see it and when they hear it.
He describes what we're about to see detonated, then counts it down.
In a control tower next to where students sit on bleachers, someone hits a button setting of a powerful blast. It's enough to make the agents in training jump, even though they know it's coming.
Agent Wade moves quickly through his arsenal.
"NMX foam. 3...2..1..."
There's another powerful explosion and another lesson learned. And they do this surrounded by constant reminders of agents who came before them. Memorials are everywhere.
As for Agent Zellers, he carries his own, inside.
"I really feel so bad and sorry for the families of the people that got injured and killed. My heart goes out to them. I wish we could have helped them," he said.
Zellers knows he did all he could do that night to get people out of harm's way. But it's the kind of thing you never forget. And it's the kind of thing you pass on to the next generation of ATF agents training right here in Georgia.
Some of those agents will be graduating this week and heading out to their assignments all across the country. We want to wish them well, and we want to say a special thanks to the ATF National Academy for allowing us on the inside.