February 1, 2003: A Retrospective on Columbia
(KLTV) - December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. Ask almost anyone where they were on those dates and they can tell you, in vivid detail, exactly what they were doing when they learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor, of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination or of the hijacked airplanes.
The same is true for many across the United States, especially those in Texas, when you ask them where they were on February 1, 2003.
KLTV anchor Joe Terrell, chief meteorologist Mark Scirto and news director Kenny Boles were in Bullard on that beautiful, clear February day, about to set out on a round of golf, when they saw lights streaking across the sky right over their head. Terrell captured a few pictures, just as many East Texans did as they saw the tragedy unfold over their heads.
KLTV photojournalist Lynn Mitchell was shooting a fishing show when he noticed the streak moving across the sky. He videotaped the sight, not knowing exactly what it was. In hindsight, he realized the streaks were Columbia falling apart as it descended over East Texas. The fisherman with him said the sight was something he had never seen before.
"It cleared the sky, probably took about 3 to 5 minutes in the horizon to the East," said Mitchell. Everything just broke up into a... I don't know. It looked like 7 or 8 pieces."
Dr. Scott Lieberman was in Tyler taking pictures of what he thought would be an exciting image of a normal re-entry. He noticed what appeared to be parallel contrails but it wasn't until several minutes later, when he heard the booms and felt the rattle that followed, that he know the strange sight was something much worse.
"It's typically two short loud bangs in a row. Instead of that, what we heard was really a loud voracious exploding sound that got quite loud and shook the house and windows," said Lieberman.
Back on the golf course, it was Scirto who suggested the possibility that what they had just witnessed was Columbia. Nonetheless, they were inclined to think it was some kind of satellite breaking up on re-entry. It wasn't until much later at the clubhouse at Eagle's Bluff that they learned what they had just witnessed.
Seven astronauts -- Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon -- lost their lives on that sunny February day as many Americans watched from the ground. While they may be gone, we will never forget them.
Just three days before the disaster, McCool said, "From our orbital vantage point, we observe an Earth without borders, full of peace, beauty and magnificence, and we pray that humanity as a whole can imagine a borderless world as we see it, and strive to live as one in peace."
An inspiring vision from a fallen American hero to remind us to take a quiet moment on Friday to look up into the sky and remember the fallen crew of Columbia's last voyage to the stars.
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