God, it was cold that morning.
In fact, it had been cold all winter. I moved from New Bern to Gastonia right before the New Year, and I remember arriving at my new apartment with my car in the middle of the night (having driven a moving truck with all my stuff first, then hopped a commuter flight to New Bern, which didn’t land until after 10 p.m., to pick up my car and drive it back). With the temp in the low teens when I arrived around 3 a.m., I was grateful that I could turn on the electric heater right by my bed and, finally, sleep. And within days the temp had hit or ducked below zero several times.
But that particular morning, I’d started my cop rounds well before sunup and found out there’d been a killing. The guy they wanted was in a mobile home somewhere in or near Bessemer City, and the cops were trying to talk him out, and that’s where I went, and I could only get so close in my car so I had to get out in the cold and walk the rest of the way to talk to the cops, and that’s where I stayed until late in the morning, when my relief arrived so I could drive back to the Gazette and file a story.
After my relief arrived and I headed back and I filed the story and it got edited and the pages got laid out and the presses started rolling, I was just coming back from the bathroom when I looked at the newsroom TV and saw the shuttle blow up.
I ran back to the pressroom, and for what will almost certainly be the only time in my career, I yelled, “Stop the presses!” But they were already slowing down. Someone else — Jennie? Nancy? Sally? Jim? — had gotten there first.
I seem to recall the announcer saying the shuttle was somewhere just over 40,000 feet in the air at that point. And I remember thinking, Forty thousand? Hey, people have parachuted from higher than that. Maybe they’ll be OK, even as I saw replay after replay of the launch, and the fire and the explosion and the pieces and I began to grasp that, no, no one on that shuttle was ever going to be OK. And at that point I had stuff to do, work-related stuff, people on the street to interview back out in the cold, and it wasn’t until hours later that I started wondering what it must have been like for the kids in New Hampshire to see their teacher, Christa McAuliffe, blown to pieces on live television.
NASA, in painstaking and bloodless detail, describes it all here.
The explosion 73 seconds after liftoff claimed crew and vehicle. The cause of explosion was determined to be an o-ring failure in the right solid rocket booster. Cold weather was determined to be a contributing factor.
That day and for a long time afterward, I thought I’d never feel warm again.