Where’s Columbia?

[Editor’s note: I wrote this February 1, 2003, and it became the centerpiece of a package, posted a few days later, on the Chips Quinn Web site regarding the tragedy.]

The morning came with a thunder that made no sound. I didn’t hear the sonic boom. My windows didn’t tremble.

This morning, the shuttle Columbia broke apart over northeast Texas. News reports told of people hearing sonic booms for hundreds of miles there and in Louisiana. Each chunk of spacecraft warped the air around it into a loud bang as it slowed to under Mach 1.

Here in Ocala, Fla., I heard nothing.

“You can hear the sonic boom overhead,” my cousin Cheryl told me at 9 a.m. when I turned on the news to watch the shuttle land. “Sometimes the windows even shake.”

Columbia would be passing over us on its way to land at Cape Canaveral, Fla., 136 miles to the east. I waited for the shudder of the windows. I heard nothing. At 9:16 a.m., the local newscaster, who no doubt expected another routine landing, began speculating why the shuttle might lag behind schedule.

At Cape Canaveral, the sun shone brightly. “It’s a beautiful day for a landing,” he had remarked, opening his live coverage.

He didn’t know that at about 9 a.m., both Kennedy and Johnson space centers had lost radar and radio contact with Columbia.

At 9:18 a.m., two minutes after the scheduled landing, I called to the other room. “Cheryl, Columbia’s late. I don’t know if something’s wrong, or what.” I heard the pad of her slippers approaching. I sipped my coffee, tasting the bitterness, and mission control finally broke the silence. “A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared,” the voice said. The scene on television showed the crowd gathered, waiting for a ghost.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Shredded wheat bubbled in my stomach. My body knew how to react, but my head trailed behind trying to be rational. NASA officials had been dispersing the crowd gathered at Kennedy since earlier that morning. Expectant families had waited with excited children on cold metal bleachers, and gawkers had scanned the sky with binoculars.

Officials ushered the news crews away.

The local newscaster who had narrated the silence for me still sounded stunned at what he hadn’t seen.

By 9:40 a.m., I had switched to CNN, which confirmed the worst. Trails of plasma plumed across the screen. Three, four, even five of them streaked through the sky, where there should have been just one. The 24-hour news station, filling airtime, repeated the same few-second clips. I held hope that the next time I saw the footage, the multiple streaks would turn out to be a trick of the eye, a glint of the sun.

People in Nacogdoches, Texas, just had finished breakfast and discovered shrapnel in a bank parking lot.

A crash site somewhere between Athens and Rusk, CNN beaconed. But it’s not that easy. The shuttle’s intense velocity didn’t leave a “crash site.” Streams of wreckage were cast across east Texas, Louisiana, even Arkansas.

It’s not that easy.

Later, Cheryl and I tried to make the best of an otherwise beautiful day. “I’ve had too many days like this in such a short life,” I told her.

“What do you mean?”

I paused. Her Camaro sped us down the road toward Marion Market in Belleview, just south of Ocala. Air gushed through the open window.

“Days that I can turn to my kids one day, and say, ‘I remember exactly where I was when…’ “

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