It was - what, 17 years ago? - back when Americas space shuttle was still somewhat of a novelty. Launches still made the nightly news and the next days front pages.
This launch was really a special one: Christa McAulliffe was on board, the first school teacher ever to go up in space, and classrooms around the country were watching. Locally, cold weather kept our schools closed that day - but kids still tuned in from home.
The Augusta Herald newsroom, where I worked as a reporter, was tuned in, too. Several of us watched the countdown and launch, and the cheerful admiration turned to bewilderment, and then horror, as the big ship exploded and broke apart barely a minute after takeoff.
Our stunned silence lasted only a few moments before a cooler head - probably editor Deborah Jackson, who now is in North Carolina but who still has family here in Columbia County - snapped us back to work and scattered reporters in all directions.
Some of us went out to hunt official reaction; others, like me, began searching for comments from ordinary people who may have been watching the launch.
My call was to Davidsons department store (which later became Macys). I knew that in the electronics section there were always rows of television sets tuned to the same station, and guessed that customers and employees would also have paused to watch the launch.
The hunch proved correct. A clerk in the electronics section sounded upset, describing the shocked, un-believing customers frozen in front of the images of Challengers explosion. Other reporters found the same thing: Universally, we couldnt grasp the enormity of the loss of Challenger and all seven souls aboard.
Saturday morning the TV wasnt on; nor was the radio. The news about Colum-bias reentry explosion reached me when Bill Kirby, from The Chronicle newsroom, called to ask for suggestions on reaching Susan Still, our famed local shuttle astronaut. I didnt have any, and after fumbling for the remote could only stare in that same rerun-of-time disbelief at the TV images of Columbia plummeting to earth from 40 miles up.
This time I didnt call any electronics departments; Macys is closed, anyway. I just closed my eyes and prayed that the five men and two women met their end quickly, and that their families find comfort in a nations expressions of remorse and respect.
And I prayed that we are able to keep up our courage.
Whether it is sending soldiers into harms way halfway around the world, or sending astronauts to orbit it, a nation cant afford to be unnerved into inaction, like those young reporters 17 years ago frozen in front of television screens.
Collectively, we have to shake off the devastation.
And get back to work.
Columbia, by the way, owes the origin of its named to the explorer Christopher Columbus - as does Columbia County. When our county was formed in 1790, the trend was to name new counties or cities after Revolu-tionary War heroes. But there was a strong pacifist religious streak in the county being split off from Rich-mond County, and so the name of the explorer was chosen instead of someone better known for bloodshed.
Weve never made a big deal out of the name kinship with one of Americas space shuttles. But its not too late to bond with the families who suffered the loss of those aboard Columbia. The county has set up a card in the Government Complex in Evans, just outside the drivers license offices; stop by anytime before Friday to sign condolences for members of the space shuttle Columbia family, from members of Columbia Countys family.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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