Chip Minemyer | Despite flood of ominous reports, those working in Sochi say they feel safe

My strongest memory of a week at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics doesn’t involve competitions, or national colors or gold-medal ceremonies.

What has stayed with me the strongest is the moment my group entered Centennial Olympic Park on the way to our venue and encountered a memorial gathering for Alice Hawthorne. She had been killed two nights earlier in a bomb blast at that spot.

Her husband was there, and someone was passing out roses.

We later learned that the act of domestic terrorism was carried out by a serial bomber named Eric Robert Rudolph.

That was a time when our nation’s innocence was crumbling. A year earlier, 168 people died in the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. The Columbine school shooting was just three years away, and the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, beyond that.

Much of the advance news these days from Sochi, Russia, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, has focused on the risk of violence.

We’re told American warships will be stationed in the Black Sea to help protect our citizens going there to work at, compete in and watch the Games.

Drones will monitor the skies, and sonar will watch the sea. The FBI is sending in dozens of agents, and the Russian town is to be filled with more than 100,000 armed police and military personnel in addition to the throngs of visitors.

And for good reason. Russia has seen 124 suicide attacks in the past 13 years, The Associated Press reported Saturday. In December, a suicide bombing in the city of Volgograd killed 34.

Maralyn Mazza and her daughter, Gina Mazza, both of State College, have loved ones working at the Games in Sochi.

Gina’s brother Paul Mazza is an NBC executive who is heading up technical engineering for the network’s extensive coverage.

Her daughters, Sondi and Bella Stachowksi, are working in the tape room of David Mazza’s division, compiling footage for NBC’s Olympics broadcasts.

“We feel fortunate that they’re having the experience. But this is a hard one,” said Maralyn Mazza, president of South Hills School of Business and Technology. She and her late husband, Paul Mazza Jr., founded the school.

“I wasn’t sure if (the granddaughters) should go or not,” Maralyn said. “But I’m confident that David wouldn’t encourage them if he wasn’t sure they would be safe.”

Sondi Stachowski is 24; her sister is 22. Both attended State College Area High School.

“I’m a little concerned about whether they attend the opening ceremonies,” Gina Mazza said. “It’s hard not to take what you read seriously. I think NBC is feeling comfortable with what is happening there now.

“We’re all thinking about it. But they decided to take this opportunity and make the most of it.”

Reached by cellphone in Sochi, David Mazza said he feels protected in the Olympic Village and at the competition areas.

“The media back home are all in an uproar about security,” he said. “But anyone who is here feels quite safe.”

He said those attending the Games should expect check stations at every stop. Similar to what’s experienced in an airport in the terrorism era, tourists and even those working in Sochi will pass through metal detectors and can expect vigorous pat-downs.

“We don’t see all of those reports,” David said. “But we do see what they’re doing to keep us safe here. There is a tremendous amount of security in place.”

Tourists have been urged to avoid certain regions of the coastal city.

That’s fine with the Mazza contingent in Sochi.

“I have felt safe and comfortable both walking to work and taking the train to the mountains because of the high level of security in and around the Olympic venues in Sochi,” Bella Stachowksi said by email. She and her sister arrived last Wednesday.

David Mazza is working his 13th Olympics overall, and he has helped guide NBC’s coverage every time since the Atlanta Games.

“We’re very safe in the Olympic bubble,” he said. “We live in it. We work in it.”

Many of Mazza’s family members have joined David at Olympic sites such as London, Athens and Sydney.

But back home this past week in State College, they have seen the news reports and experienced the trepidation despite extensive precautions taken by NBC and the U.S. government.

David visited his hometown at Christmas and was able to put his loved ones’ fears at ease, for the most part.

“He felt comfortable with the level of security,” Gina Mazza said. “I’ve talked to the girls since then, and they’ve said it’s intense.”

The emotions run the full spectrum: Pride. Concern. Excitement. Anxiousness.

“The public eye across the world is on the Olympics,” Gina said. “There will be more people watching than anything else across the world. And there could be crazy people out there who see this as an opportunity to make a statement.”

The opening ceremonies are set for Friday.

“We’ll do a lot of praying,” Maralyn Mazza said, “that everyone is safe and sound.”