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Olympic fiasco ends

It was a fiasco from start to finish.

It ended Saturday when busloads of students from Florida returned from Atlanta to high schools in Hernando and Pinellas counties. The students, tired and angry, were reunited with family after enduring what was supposed to be the experience of a lifetime.

For the 60 kids and chaperones who returned to Hernando High on Saturday evening, it was an awful experience.

They were some of the hundreds of Florida high school students hired to work for the vendors surrounding the Olympic Games. But they arrived in Atlanta only to be told they had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat except soggy hot dogs and warm apples and probably wouldn't get paid the $700 they were supposed to receive for 3{ weeks of work.

"It was like trying to cram Texas into Rhode Island," Brooksville senior Erin Chatman, 17, told her mother, Linda.

When they had nothing to eat and needed to get to a cafeteria, 16 girls from Hernando County caught a ride across downtown Atlanta in the back of a florist's van.

For six days, about 3,000 teenagers from as far away as Hawaii were in the same boat _ sleeping on Atlanta's sidewalks and living on hot dogs. Before it was over, the Red Cross and the Georgia governor's office got involved.

What went wrong?

"What went right would be the better question," said Rodney Byrd, athletic director at Hernando High School and one of the chaperones on the trip.

The first buses with Pinellas students arrived at Northeast High School about 10 a.m. Saturday. Others were expected Saturday night.

"The worst experience of my life, the absolute worst," said Nick Erickson, 17, a rising senior at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.

At the start of the trip, the group was filled with anticipation, especially when they saw the lights at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium from their tour bus. "It was awesome-looking," Nick said.

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

Their first night in Atlanta, the group slept on a concrete floor at a welcome center, he said. From there, the trip went downhill.

"I woke up at 9 a.m. to see hundreds of students flooding into the welcome center," he 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. "I was fed up with it that night."

But students stayed two more days. Erickson said he got about eight hours of sleep during his stay and spent much of the time waiting with classmates at a motel outside Atlanta to find out what had gone wrong.

By the time his group of students climbed on a bus to come home about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Nick said, "I was thinking, "Thank God.' I was very, very happy to leave."

Florida officials said that the company in charge, Creative Travel Services in Atlanta, appeared guilty of poor planning but no criminal violations. Families did not pay to take part, officials pointed out.

Sharon Goldmacher of Communications 21, which was handling public relations for Creative Travel Services, said the program started to fall apart this week after plans to house the students at two Atlanta schools fell through. She blamed school officials.

They "broke a contract," Goldmacher said.

But state officials in both Tallahassee and Atlanta said the blame appeared to rest with Creative Travel, which had promised students $5-an-hour concession jobs, free lodging and tickets to two Olympic events.

The company said it will reimburse students $200 apiece and chaperones $1,000 each for their troubles.

But Hernando's Byrd thinks the students deserve more than that.

Summer Games Employment Services, an affiliate of Creative Travel, had contracted with more than 500 private investors who paid about $50,000 apiece to set up souvenir stands around the Olympics, Byrd said. SGES took in about $8-million and, in turn, was supposed to arrange for high school students to be housed in Atlanta to work the stands.

Letters on SGES stationery were sent to schools throughout the United States soliciting coaches to organize groups of athletes to work 40-hour weeks in the Atlanta heat _ in return for $700, tickets to the Olympics and a summer away from mom and dad. Thousands signed up.

But SGES didn't deliver on its end of the bargain.

"SGES agreed to pay $200 a student and $1,000 a chaperone instead of going to jail," Byrd said. "But I think we should all be paid what we were promised. There are kids who took the summer off work to do this and need the money to pay for college in the fall. I think they should go to jail if we're not paid. Lock 'em up."