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Olympic debacle ends

The saga of the stranded students ended Saturday as 200 Tampa Bay area teenagers returned home from a tiring and chaotic four-day stay in Atlanta.

"The worst experience of my life, the absolute worst," said Nick Erickson, 17, a Gibbs High School senior who returned by bus.

He and his classmates were among 2,300 students from around the nation who went to Atlanta as part of a youth jobs program that promised free lodging, $5-an-hour wages and tickets to two Olympic events.

The program fell apart almost immediately, with scarce lodging proving the main problem. By Friday, the companies in charge _ Creative Travel Services and SGES Corp. _ had declared the venture a failure and started sending children home, including students from as far as Hawaii.

Which was just fine with the students. After three days of sleeping on motel room floors and paying for meals with their own money instead of promised per diem allowances, they were eager to return to regular meals, beds and at least a televised view of the Olympics.

"It was a long trip, we had no place to sleep, there was nowhere to take showers," said Marcus Polk, 17, a Northeast High School senior whose bus rolled into the school parking lot Saturday night.

Said Shaquina Church, 18, of St. Petersburg, who took a plane home Saturday: "I'm going to get a nice, home-cooked meal and take a long shower."

At the trip's beginning, the teenagers were filled with anticipation, especially when they saw the lights at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium from their tour bus. "It was awesome looking," Erickson said.

But for most, he said, "That was as close as we got."

The first night in Atlanta, students slept on a concrete floor at a welcome center, he said. From there, the trip went down hill.

"I woke up at 9 a.m. to see hundreds of students flooding into the welcome center," Erickson said. "It went from about 300 to 400 kids to busloads and busloads. I said, "There's no way they have enough jobs for us.' "

"I wanted to go home the day after we slept on the concrete floor," he said.

But they stayed two more days, spending most of their time on tour buses or in motel rooms waiting to find out what had gone wrong. Misgivings turned into outright disappointment, Church said.

"At first it was like, "Okay, it'll get better,' " she said. "But it didn't get better. It just got worse. Everything was so messed up, it was pathetic."

One group of hungry Hernando County girls reported hitchhiking in the back of a florist's van to to get to a cafeteria.

By the time Pinellas students climbed on a bus to return home at 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Erickson said, "I was thinking, "Thank God.' "

Diane Stevens, a Largo mother, was so worried about her daughter, Jennifer Duff, 17, that she drove the 500 miles to Atlanta to pick her up.

Once she found her daughter, mom didn't bother sticking around to soak up the Olympic atmosphere. "We just turned around and drove back," Stevens said.

Sharon Goldmacher, of Communications 21, which was handling public relations for Creative Travel Services, said the program collapsed because plans to house the children at two Atlanta schools fell through. She blamed school officials.

They "broke a contract," Goldmacher said.

State officials in both Tallahassee and Atlanta said the blame appeared to rest instead with the companies. But they said the companies appeared guilty of poor planning, not criminal violations. Families did not pay for the program, state officials pointed out.

Church's mother, Wanda, disagreed. "I think it's child abuse," she said. "What would they do to me if I took my child up to Georgia, dropped her off and left her there? I think they abused 2,000 children."

Some students made the most of their last night, catching rides by hotel shuttle to Atlanta's rapid-rail system, to be outside Olympic Stadium during opening ceremonies. Others found they were local celebrities, as word spread in Atlanta about the kids who were treated shabbily.

A La Quinta Inn in Austell, Ga., donated free rooms to Northeast students Friday night. A school district outside Atlanta asked if it could send school buses to take the children home.

"People would come up and say, "You're with that group, aren't you?' " said Ralph Wilson, 21, of St. Petersburg, a Keswick Christian School graduate. "Everybody was real nice."

Creative Travel Services promised to reimburse students $200 apiece and chaperones $1,000 each for the trip. But many parents and students said Saturday they doubted they would ever see the money.

"I just put it up to experience," Shaquina Church said. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

_ Times staff writer Kirsten Scharnberg contributed to this report.