The Athens Review
Ten years ago today, those of us blessed to call Henderson County and East Texas home awoke to a beautiful start to the weekend. Sunrise had exposed a clear, deep blue sky and the temperature was cool and crisp.
But what promised to be a beautiful day never became reality.
Shortly before 8 that Saturday morning, an explosion thousands of miles above us provided a blast that stole the calm and quiet and provided a jolt that left us all in wonderment. Word soon began to spread contact with Space Shuttle Columbia had been lost as it streaked through the atmosphere above Texas on its way to an end-of-mission touchdown in Florida.
It then became obvious what had happened. America, still dealing with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorists attacks from less than a year and-a-half earlier, had lost its second space shuttle and the seven-member crew — just four days beyond the 17-year anniversary of losing Challenger in an explosion a few moments after lift-off in 1986.
As tragic and horrific as the first space shuttle disaster was as most of us watched live on television, losing Columbia was different and the emotions more magnified. It happened right above us and was personal, evident by the fact even as we were starting to grasp the reality of it all, debris from Columbia were raining down across a wide area in East Texas, including the county.
Because of where the tragedy occurred, we became part of the story. National and state media outlets quickly began to converge on East Texas, where they would continue to follow the story over the next several weeks. Well beyond that, recovery crews worked to retrieve and document every single piece of debris.
But as fast as the national and state media attempted to arrive on the scene, I, to this day, remember how quickly the editorial staff we had here at the Review at the time went into action. We knew the story was big and we had a responsibility to reporting it from the local angles.
In my world as sports editor, that particular Saturday was already going to be a big one. The Trinity Valley Community College Lady Cardinals had an undefeated season going and their first legitimate threat to staying perfect awaited them later in the day at Wagstaff Gymnasium in Tyler. The TVCC-TJC women’s games were always special and that one promised to be no different.
When the day began, that had been my focus. But as soon as the scope of the Columbia tragedy began to unfold, it was obvious something more important and of far more significance than a basketball game was now the centerpiece of the day — and the days to come.
At the time of the explosion, Review editor Toni Garrard Clay was on maternity leave, so my first call went to publisher Dan Youngman. He had already been in communication with lifestyle editor Elise Mullinix. She and I were sharing editor responsibilities in Toni’s absence.
As the rest of the staff either checked in or was contacted, the phone lines in the office began to light up with residents throughout the county reporting debris they suspected to be from the explosion, or wanting to relay what they witnessed.
Before freelance photographer Charles Stiff and I left for the game in Tyler, we answered a called and took photos at a residence in Malakoff, where a resident had discovered small debris and a powderly substance in the back of his truck and on the front porch.
The rest of the day and the next few days were filled with stories like that.
During that time, staffers Art Lawler, Jayson Larson and Jennifer Stone (now Hannigan) traced down every lead to a possible story and took countless numbers of photos. In one of the nation’s saddest moments, their dedication and commitment to covering the story, along with everyone associated with the paper, helped make it one of the Review’s most shining examples of community journalism at its best.
As difficult as it was, Charles and I traveled to Tyler, though we didn’t talk much, which was very unusual. We were both lost in our thoughts as we listened to radio coverage of what had transpired. One of us would occasionally comment.
The game went on. Both teams played hard. The Lady Cardinals won. But there was absolutely no enthusiasm or energy in the building among the crowd. Though those in attendance were pausing long enough to watch two very talented teams play, everyone realized the day was no longer going to be about the final score.
The drive home was also quiet with very little discussion of the game, again something very unusual for the two of us. Our conversations stayed centered on the tragedy and the lives lost and affected.
As the 10-year anniversary of the event approached in recent days, I, from time to time, found myself wondering what it must have been like for members of the unsuspecting crew moments before the explosion. Just as we all are upon returning from a trip, I’m sure there was great anticipation of being home and sharing hugs and hellos with loved ones. It makes me sad to think of that.
Near the end of his remarks informing the nation of the loss of Columbia, President George W. Bush said “the crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”
Benny Rogers is Sports Information Officer at Trinity Valley Community College. He was on staff at the Athens Daily Review for 27 years from 1982-2009, serving the last 25 years as sports editor.