Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger Disaster - 30 Years Ago

Following the belief that you always remember where you were when you heard horrible news, I am remembering where I was 30 years ago - January 28, 1986 -  when the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the sky a few minutes following takeoff.

I was in my car - my first car - driving to the beach.  My goal was to get a job for the summer, so I drove down for some interviews.  It had snowed a few days before, but the roads were clear and wet.  Dirty water would spray lightly on my windshield and would streak across the glass when I turned on the wipers because my 1979 blue Chevy Chevette was out of washer fluid.  Occasionally I would stop at a fast-food restaurant and get a cup of water to throw on my windshield during the trip.

I was on Route 50 heading east, near Salem, MD when I first heard the news on the radio sometime before noon.  Music stopped that day and the radio was filled with reporters regurgitating the same news over and over, just like they do today when a disaster happens; "experts" trying to make sense of the senseless, explaining their points of view as to what could have happened; it would be weeks before we actually would know.  Six astronauts and 1 teacher died that day, and the teacher's family, students, school district, and many others watched the explosion happen in real time.

I got to Ocean City and had my interview, and I remember talking to my interviewers about what I had heard.  I checked in to the Quality Inn Hotel on 17th Street & the Boardwalk.  I had always wanted to see what that place was like because it looked so nice.  We used to go down to Ocean City every summer and would stay on the bay side up around 30th Street.  The Quality Inn was the only high rise at the time and it was right on the beach.  So I treated myself and got a room on a top floor overlooking the winter ocean.

For the rest of the night, I sat in the room with the lights off and the TV on, watching the coverage of what had occurred earlier in the day.  I kept the balcony drapes open so I could occasionally look up to see the moon shining on the sea.  I ordered a pizza and just watched the news the rest of the night - watching the moment of the explosion time and time and time again.  The media had been everywhere during takeoff because they wanted to capture the emotions of the teacher's family and students as she lifted into space.  So the news replayed the expressions of wonder, then confusion, then horror on the faces of those who knew her and the others.  It was gut-wrenching, but I watched because I grieved for them - part morbid curiosity, part trying to understand what happened myself.

The following morning, I drove back to Frostburg.  I got the job I went after and would move back down to the beach a few months later.  And I eventually added washer fluid to my car.  But I would always remember where I was when I heard the news about the Challenger exploding.