The Challenger Tragedy: A Tribute By Someone Who Was There
It has been 19 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the clear blue Florida skies shortly after it left the launching pad. At the time of the disaster, I was employed as the company "gofer" (go fer this, go fer that) of a small air freight company named Condor Aviation, which operated out of Niagara Falls, New York. Part of my duties were to travel with the various aircraft as they delivered their loads and assist the pilot as needed.
On the morning of January 28, 1986, we were flying a shipment of Cadillac radiators from Niagara Falls, New York to the assembly plant near Sioux City, Iowa when the news flashed over the airwaves (via air traffic control) of the tragedy. I recall clearly that we were very near Cleveland, Ohio.
At that very same moment, Dr. Pat Santy, MD (who is a member of The Watcher's Council) was a NASA flight surgeon on assignment to Cape Canaveral. She was there for the launch.
Dr. Santy personally knew the Challenger astronauts, and she has written an outstanding tribute to their memory. Here is an excerpt:
If you can possibly spare a few moments, invest a little time and get a first-hand account of the disaster from someone that was there. It's quite an education.
My awe was short-lived as we noticed an anomaly. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the SRBs (solid rocket boosters) and they detached from the ET (external tank) too soon. There seemed to be a big explosion, but none of us were certain what might have happened. I swung into action, because it seemed that we must be in an RTLS situation. I made a few commands to my emergency team, who were outside in ambulances, as I continued to watch the growing cloud of the explosion, waiting for the Challenger to appear from behind it heading back to the landing site, not far away. I waited and waited. The orbiter did not appear. I felt a momentary confusion, and then I think all the blood must have rushed out of my head as I realized what it meant. I knew they must have been killed. All of them. I had to hold onto the console for support. All I could think of was oh my God, oh my God.
The Launch Director coolly called for a lockdown. None was to leave the room until all information on at all consoles was safely secured. It was then that I was able to gather myself together again, as I realized that if the crew was gone, my responsibility was to take care of their families. I went to the Launch Director and asked to be allowed to leave, because the families were in Crew Quarters, about a mile or so away down the road. After some discussion, the doors were unlocked and I was permitted out. I ran to my car and started down the road, but everyone on the highway had stopped and the road was blocked. People were milling around, still not accepting what they had just seen with their own eyes.
I was desperate to get to the families and do something useful. I wasn't sure what, but I felt they might need me there. I drove my car on the center divider and the grass between the lanes, and made my way through the crowds who had stopped to watch the launch. It took me some 20 minutes to get to Crew Quarters.