Friday, February 01, 2013

Ten Years Later, We Still Remember

I can't believe that it's been ten years to the day since the Columbia disaster--part of which I witnessed firsthand without knowing what I was seeing at first. One year later, once I had become a blogger, I recounted my recollection of the morning, but I'll repost it here in its entirety as well:
GREENVILLE, TX: The sun rose brightly on the outskirts of town on a crisp Saturday morning. I wasn't usually up this early on a Saturday, now that I was freed of the weekend job I'd had off and on for over a decade. But this was a special weekend: my annual Province Workshop for Sinfonia, where all the chapters get together for a big weekend-long meeting. This year it was being held at Texas A&M-Commerce--a small school in a small town, but one of my stronger chapters.

Seeing as how Commerce wasn't a big place, I didn't want to tax their hospitality by staying with one of the local brothers, so I got a hotel in Greenville, the nearest big town. I had the place to myself, at least on paper, but James (my collegiate representative), Baker (who would be elected this morning to that post for next year), and about four other guys from UNT crashed on my floor that night. No biggie--it's all about the brotherhood.

Since I was running the meetings, I left around 8:00 a.m. to get back to Commerce. I went in the lobby to check out of the hotel; Baker, who was riding up there with me, stayed in the car. When I came out, I was greeted by a loud noise, the likes of which I had never heard before. Baker was outside the car, looking at the noise's source.

A large jet contrail, much bigger than usual, appeared in the morning sky above. It was I watched it, the main stream kept going forward but also split off into equal arcs to the right and left. I wasn't sure, but I thought I was watching an exquisitely-choreographed military training flight. Baker had been in the military before college, so it made sense why he was watching it, but I was equally enraptured.

The only thing was, I was pretty sure that we weren't anywhere close to a military base. That spawned an exchange that neither of us would understand for a while: "I wonder what we're near," I asked. "Armageddon," replied Baker. Even though that didn't make sense, we watched the display until it no longer could be seen, and then we got into the car to head to the meetings.

As the coffee-and-donuts hour drew to a close and we got ready to start the meetings, James pulled me aside for a second. "I thought maybe you might want to make an announcement or something; I just heard on the radio that the space shuttle blew up." Only then did I realize what Baker and I had seen, and our conversation now made sense (he knew it hadn't been a training flight and thought maybe it was an asteroid hurtling toward the earth).

Just like when Challenger had gone down so many years before, the viewing audience had gotten complacent, taking the safe return of NASA missions for granted again. To tell the truth, I had even forgotten that Columbia was still up there, much less that it was scheduled to land today.

Though the meetings continued, the thought of what happened was never far from anyone's mind. On the way home, my radio was glued to the news station. There was a definite pall over the day--that sadness that you feel because of what happened, whether you knew the people or not. Thankfully, other things weren't canceled either; seeing my buddy Lee in Grease proved to be a good escape from reality on this day.

Even a decade later, everything written above is pretty much seared into my mind for good, I'd think. We have not forgotten you, Columbia Seven.

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