30 Years On: The Challenger Disaster

Adapted from an article posted on The Cape Cod Times

It has been 30 years since the nation was horrified while watching the Challenger space shuttle explode in the sky shortly after launch, killing all seven crew members on board, including a civilian teacher from New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe.

The emotional day is tattooed in the minds of many who remember where they were and whom they were with when the Challenger went down. We asked people to share their memories of one of the worst disasters in the country’s history and how they were affected:

Theresa Mitchell, Yarmouth Port

In January 1986 I was a news reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio (WEVO) as well as a weekend news anchor at WEEI in Boston. My original assignment was for WEVO to cover the launch from the auditorium at Concord High School where Mrs. McAuliffe taught. The media were put on the right side of the auditorium and all students and faculty were on the left as you faced the stage, where a giant television sat atop one of those AV carts. All the major Boston television stations were there along with a lot of radio and print outlets.

Christa’s students then came in with horns and decorations and to me it resembled a typical teen New Year’s Eve party. I remember the senior administrators and some faculty were seated in the upper sections looking down on the auditorium.

Seconds after the launch itself, all seemed normal. The kids were screaming their heads off with joy, and the teachers and staff appeared pridefully immersed in the moment. And the journalists were fairly calm; after all, this wasn’t the first shuttle launch and the NASA procedures seemed routine to those of us coming of age in newsrooms in the ‘80s. We had seen dozens of these.

But I do remember thinking, ‘There’s an awful lot of smoke,’ and something just didn’t seem right. So far no one in the audience (teachers, staff and journalists) seemed to notice, so I thought it was just me.

Then it wasn’t just me any longer.

And this I’ll never forget: “Shut up,” screamed a man from the upper rafters. I think it might have been the principal. “Can’t you see something’s wrong?”

It was then that everyone quieted down, and faces were glazed in disbelief.

Then came the moment everyone remembers from that NASA spokesman: “Obviously a major malfunction.” That proved to be the understatement of the decade, didn’t it?

I thought, “I gotta get outta here and find a phone,” so I scrambled out of my seat and headed up the aisle past this one male television reporter from Boston who couldn’t take his eyes off that TV screen; he seemed frozen in his seat, like a proverbial deer in the headlights. Just outside the auditorium was a tiny closet with a desk. I figured it belonged to the custodian. I popped on the light, shut the door, sat down and dialed the WEVO newsroom and gave a quick update. Even though I wasn’t on official assignment, I then dialed the WEEI newsroom in Boston and told them I was actually with Christa’s class, and within minutes I was live on the air filing a report, functioning on pure adrenaline because I had so few notes. They signed me off quickly to accommodate a reporter at NASA in Florida, but I did get in several minutes worth of narrative.

At that point I had no other choice than to grab my stuff — my purse and tape recorder, which in those days was as large as a small beach cooler and weighed about 10 pounds — and head out the door before I was kicked out. Teachers were forcing all the journalists out the door and into the cold. The students were in shock. No one said very much. I think at that point we all knew the entire Challenger crew had perished. Some of us tried to catch student reactions as they left the building, but after one try with an emotionally crippled kid who had been traumatized by what he had just seen, I felt like a vulture and quit while I was ahead. Others did not.

As I reflect back on the disaster three decades later, I must have been in some state of shock. We all were. In the ‘80s, bad things and stories on a massive scale simply didn’t happen all that often. The next 36 hours were a flurry of filing reports to media entities all over the world because I was based in Concord. “I heard you on Radio Guam,” someone told me a few years later. “I heard you on AP in Philly,” someone else said. But in those early hours there was very little sleep. Very little food. Just work, work, work. But in the ‘80s, with covering the hardest of breaking news, this is what you did.

Some weeks later, on a weekend shift at WEEI in Boston, the AP machine kept dinging its bell. Usually one bell ring meant a fresh news story, two might have signaled bad weather, three was to signal for someone giving a speech, such as President Reagan’s State of the Union address. But on this day it kept ringing, one after the other. “The Russians are coming?” I said to my editor. “No, it’s not the Russians. The Navy just found the Challenger’s crew compartment,” she said.

And then we relived the nightmare all over again.