…I lived about a thousand miles away from home, forecasting the weather for East Texas on KLTV. February 1, 2003 became a day I will never forget.
It was a Saturday, a day I was off of work. My pup, Theo, was just about three years old and slept every night on the foot of my bed. He was a deep sleeper (as was I) but awoke abruptly that morning. Usually, if someone knocked on the door, he ran to the door to announce the arrival of a visitor. This time, he stood on top of the bed barking loudly, for no apparent reason. I calmed him down but within a minute there was a loud knocking on my front door. I scratched my head, threw on some shorts and opened the door. My next door neighbor Harrison, out of breath, was describing the sound of an explosion. We looked in all different directions in the sky and down Grande Boulevard, expecting to see a plume of smoke from a car wreck or something. In my calmer state, I assured him everything was alright and he needed to get back to the morning routine (of sleep). We were both in our 20s and 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday was not the time to be bushy-tailed and bright-eyed.
I got back into my warm bed and within another minute my phone rang. It was my mom calling from Illinois. Her first words were “Eric, are you watching CNN?” My first instinct was 9/11 as we both watched on TV what was happening to our country while talking on the phone. I went into the living room, turned on the TV to find the banner “Breaking News: Communication with Columbia Lost.” It took me a while to grasp the severity of the situation. When the news anchors showed the flight path from Texas to the landing site in Florida, I began to piece the events of my morning together.
The loud “explosion” my neighbor heard (and that woke Theo) was the sound of the Space Shuttle Disaster. I told my mom I would call her back later and then ran next door to tell Harrison (now back in bed) what had happened. He immediately grabbed his camera and we jumped into my car. My first instinct was that of the shuttle sitting nose-first into a field nearby. At that time, we didn’t know it broke up on entry. I thought there might have been a mechanical failure that caused it to literally crash.
As we exited the gates of my apartment community, I remember the wail of emergency vehicles in all different directions. It was surreal as I had never heard that before. We drove southwest on Texas 155 toward Palestine as that’s where CNN said some of the crash debris had been located.
Because it was a February Saturday in East Texas, we noticed there were fires burning in fields as we left town. It was nothing out of the ordinary as farmers and ranchers typically did that sort of thing on weekends. Later in the day we found out the fires were that of burning debris that had been strewn over hundreds of square miles of East Texas.
I remember seeing pieces of twisted metal on the shoulders of Texas 155. Again, I didn’t think twice about it since it was a fairly busy highway and trucks lose their loads a lot and cars have fender-benders occasionally. Later that day, it became obvious to me that the debris was in fact from Columbia.
After being gone about 45 minutes, we decided we weren’t going to see anything and if there was something to see the authorities wouldn’t let us anywhere near it.
I called the KLTV newsroom to see if there was anything I could do but our assignment manager said that they were calling everyone in, except for the Meteorologists. I went back and watched the coverage for hours, not knowing what emotions I was supposed to feel. KLTV’s coverage lasted for days…literally, days. Our coverage revolved around Columbia as we became Ground Zero for our nation’s new tragedy. I remember how wonderfully the team came together. One of my dear friends Dana Dixon, a reporter for KLTV, was sent to Nacogdoches where NASA had set up a command post. She had the daunting task of reporting on the recognizable remains of the shuttle and its occupants. I remember she broke up a few times on the air as any true reporter sometimes does during significant events. She held it together day in and day out providing the latest information to me, our viewers, and the nation during national news cutins. That Saturday turned every employee of KLTV into a true journalist, all of which I was proud to work with. Heck! The TV station’s slogan was and still is “Proud of East Texas.”
I remember where I was during the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and on 9/11 and felt many of the same emotions ten years ago today. Just yesterday, I read an article that NASA knew there could be problems on re-entry, due to broken heat shield tiles on Columbia’s wing. Because another Shuttle wasn’t ready to be launched and Columbia’s mission was far removed from the International Space Station, they could either notify the crew and keep them in space (rapidly losing oxygen) or try to bring them back to Earth. I believe NASA made the right decision not to communicate their fears to the crew. Instead of potentially dying in space, gasping the last available breaths of air, they died in a few seconds on re-entry as heroes…modern-day pioneers. The risks they took along with their final sacrifice should never be forgotten, whether it is the 10th anniversary or the 11th, or the 200th!
For me, I remember more from Saturday February 1, 2003 than I do six days ago. Maybe it’s because I wanted to be an astronaut when I was really young. But most likely it was because it hit so close to home.
This post was written by Eric Sorensen on February 1, 2013