Remembering Challenger: Locals reflect on tragedy

DEBORAH WHEELER 267-4555 | @WaltonSunDeb
The space-shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on Jan. 28, 1986 when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its launch.

There are moments in time that are stamped into our memories forever due to the impact we felt when we experienced them.

The Challenger moment is one of those.

The space-shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on Jan. 28, 1986 when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its launch. All seven crew members, which included five NASA astronauts and two payload specialists perished when the spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral. School-teacher Christa McAuliffe was one of those on board who died.

Last week, many who were old enough to remember, posted on social-media sites where they were and what they were doing when they heard. The Sun joined in and asked several readers to share for publication. These are their responses.

David Kramer had driven down to Melbourne, Fla. for his mother's birthday, which was Jan. 28.

"I was standing in her driveway with my sister, nieces, nephew, and my mother to watch the launch. Neighbors were all out scanning the skies toward the Cape," he remembers. "We mingled, waved, and caught up like neighbors do when a son comes home. It was a beautiful warm winter day in central Florida.

"We were a Space Coast family. We came to Florida in 1967 because my dad was a rocket scientist working at the Cape on the Gemini program. We always watched all the launches because most of our friends' dads and some moms worked for NASA and the Space program contractors. It was our life. We knew people who were out on the pad or involved with the shuttle manufacturer or down-range telemetry.

"The late-morning sun was shining. We saw the plume start its upward arching over the houses across the northeastern sky heading up and east south east. It was near 60 degrees above the horizon before we could hear the rumble and roar of the rockets and boosters.

"The arch of the shuttle reached almost 120 degrees before we saw the first puff in the plume. We all knew that was not normal, but maybe an early booster separation. But in another instant we saw another puff and the two distinct trails of the boosters begin to wind away from the intended trajectory like snakes. It was a moment later we heard the breakup.

"I looked over at my mom. She stared skyward, her hand over her mouth. Sunglasses covered her eyes.

"I heard my sister shriek, 'Oh my God!' as I turned to see tears beginning to stream down her face.

"We all knew what had happened. We lived this life for more than 20 years. It was our community. My father knew astronauts.

"My mother's birthday was never celebrated that day. Even the little kids knew astronauts had died. It was a bad and sad day on the Space Coast. Our community lost family. Even the strong cried that day."

Kathy Fly Bridges remembers. She remembers seeing those plumes of smoke separate, hearing the announcers, knowing what it meant. "I didn't see anything on TV that terrible again until the towers fell on 9/11," she said.

David Bludworth also watched. He watched from the top floor of the Palm Beach County Courthouse, and recalls feeling shocked and very sad.

Diane Pickett was in Dallas at a medical conference. "We were all standing up sipping coffee when the word came in. There were not enough doctors and nurses around to mop up the tears that flowed from everyone instantly," she said.

Debbie Speigner was at Vestavia High School when one of the other teachers came in and told the students. "We were all in disbelief and shocked."

Tim Creehan was at his home in Baton Rouge, in the kitchen, about to leave for work. "I stayed home and watched the coverage instead. It was almost impossible to believe and so very sad."

Beverly Johnson was 14 years old and so excited to see a teacher get the opportunity to take the journey on the Challenger. "I made an excuse to stay home from school just so I could watch. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor just inches from the TV waiting for takeoff." She remembers a lot of smoke, and then she knew something was terribly wrong. "I was hoping the announcers would assure the world that this was normal, that they would be making contact with them momentarily. But that did not happen. It hit me that I had made a terrible decision to stay home and watch this alone without anyone to explain to me what was going on. I walked to school and checked myself in and walked straight to my science teacher's class. Apparently he had gotten the call that the Challenger was lost and was just sitting in his empty classroom at his desk with his head down. I sat in his room and neither of us spoke. We just felt sad. I will never forget."

Kitty Taylor lived in Houston in 1986. "I was in a play group with a friend who lived in the Clear Lake area where most of the astronauts lived. We were hanging out that morning. We had the TV on and when we realized what happened the friend said she had to go home. It really hit hard because so many friends knew the astronauts or their families personally."

Erin Adkinson was in middle school and she remembers when the teachers rolled the big TVs into the classroom so that students could watch the news.

Connie Yarbro was doing her solo cross-country flight for her pilot's license and while in the air she heard on the radio from other pilots that the Challenger had broken up. "Needless to say, after landing on an icy runway in Iowa I sat in the private pilots' lounge watching TV for a while before I headed home."

Carrie Nelle Moye was moving into an apartment in mid-town Manhattan. "As I was unloading boxes in my apartment, I had the TV on and watched in horror as the Challenger exploded. I just sat on the boxes and cried for a while."

John Stasko remembers being at work in snowy and cold Fort Wayne, Ind. when he heard the news.

Zandra Wolfgram was getting cheese popcorn and a diet soda at the MUB PUB (a student hang out located between dorms and classes) at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. "It was unusually quiet. Everyone was glued to the coverage on the big-screen TV in the center of the room. It was tragic and put things in perspective for someone on the eve of their 20th birthday."

Ampy Cox remembers it well. "We were in San Diego for a Mortgage Convention that Fred had. We were in the hotel getting ready and had the TV on when I heard the news. I couldn't believe it! I felt so bad that whole day just thinking about it."

Jackie Hart was an intensive care nurse in ICU in Memphis. "I was working with a patient who was incubated and could not talk. When the Challenger broke up we were watching TV together. We both just sat there and cried."

"A day to remember," says Art Miller. "I was at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas for a management seminar. I got off the elevator in the lobby and was on my way to breakfast and stopped to watch the launch on a TV by the roulette table. As it lifted off, all seemed normal. At first, I thought the explosion was just the solid booster rockets falling off. I remember CBS's Dan Rather trying to explain what happened. The name Christa McAuliffe became famous."

Bill Fletcher was having lunch at his sister's house with his father in Marietta, Ga. "As we watched the launch and subsequent explosion, it was so horrible and heartbreaking, something you will never forget."

Valerie Lofton was driving to work on one of the giant highways in Houston when she heard, traveling 75 mph bumper to bumper. "I think all the other drivers heard, too. There seemed to be a lull or silent peace that came over the whole highway system. We were all looking up in the sky. I wondered right at that moment what each of those astronauts were thinking about as they lifted off, then realized something was amiss."

Cindy Meadows was working in Orlando as a planner in an engineering company, and since the space center was close by, they all ran outside and looked up to see the horrible smoke trail in the sky. "Our hearts sank. It was a very sad day."

Kent Lillie was in Sacramento in a sales meeting. "There was total silence and disbelief," he said.

"Bergie and I were out for a morning walk in Tustin, Calif. when a lady came out of the house and told us," remembers Carole Bergstrom. "I couldn't believe it."

Chick Huettel was having lunch at a barbecue place in Memphis when the TV came on with the report. "They quit cooking and everybody gathered around the TV," he said.

As for myself, it is a moment that is burned forever into my memory. I had turned on the TV to watch the liftoff when I sat down in my rocker to feed my 10-month-old baby. The horror of realizing what just happened in front of your eyes is something you don't easily forget.