The Castro. The Mission. The Avenues.
Fresh out of journalism school, I’d moved from New York to San Francisco and had been reporting for the region’s largest newspaper for two weeks — just long enough to deduce that locals referred to the city’s diverse enclaves with a distinct lingo.
The Haight. The Tenderloin. The Marina.
At about 9am on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, the city editor met me at the elevator with news that the Challenger had exploded and barked “man on the street” (the media practice of gathering comments from a random group of people in public places). The veteran photographer assigned to work the story with me came barreling out of the dark room.
As the elevator descended to the lobby, I turned to him and asked: “Where is the Challenger district?”
His eyes widened and flashed a look of disbelief that has been seared into my memory. “The Challenger’s not a neighbourhood,” he said, astonished. “It’s the space shuttle. The one with the school teacher on board that just blew up. Everybody’s been killed.”
And so began my first major assignment as a newspaper reporter. Stressed out by my move across the country to start a new (and much needed) job, I’d somehow managed to miss all previous media coverage of the ill-fated Challenger mission.
Call me incompetent (or worse), but I was clueless about New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe and her landmark status as the first American civilian on a space flight. I was likewise oblivious to the widely publicized weather problems that had prompted repeated delays of the expedition’s scheduled lift off.
But gently guided by the photographer, I quickly got up to speed as we crisscrossed the city to record local response to the disaster. Because of the time difference, many San Francisco Bay Area residents were just starting their day when McAuliffe and the other crew members — Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Dick Scobee, and Michael Smith — perished 73 seconds into the NASA shuttle’s ascent at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In an ironic twist, I was the first person to inform people (in a pre-tweet era) of the Challenger tragedy. “You just don’t think that things like this can happen with our advanced technology,” said a distraught woman, her voice choked with tears.
“I believe there are some deeply religious people who feel we shouldn’t be flying up there at all,” noted a man, as he watched replays of the explosion on television sets in a department store. “That’s not what I believe, but something like this definitely makes you think twice.”
Before returning to the newsroom, the photographer suggested that we visit “Saint Maytag.”
As I was clueless (again), he explained that locals had jokingly christened, with the name, a San Francisco church that resembled an agitator in a washing machine. The Challenger disaster had likely drawn a crowd to the parish, he said.
Indeed, we found dozens of people at prayer in the famed Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption. “It’s almost an instinctual response people have in a time of crisis,” said the rector. “They come because they don’t know where else to go or where to turn.”
The next day my story appeared in the paper, illustrated with a stirring image by the photographer. Mindful of my shaky start on the assignment, I deflected compliments.
Fast forward and last fall found me the guest speaker in a class for aspiring journalists taught by Erin Moore, at Nova Scotia Community College in Dartmouth. I shared highlights of my career, including a riveting in-person interview with civil rights heroine Rosa Parks.
I also recounted, for the first time, my Challenger saga. Seemingly moved by cosmic forces, I spoke about my failure (still a source of embarrassment) to monitor, from day one, a major news story.
But most of all, I was grateful to stand before a group of prospective journalists and offer belated thanks for the support of a colleague who’d taken me under his wing.
The next day, I received an email from Moore, who grew up in Lunenburg. It read, in part:
“I was nine years old and visiting Florida for the first time with my parents and grandparents. We hadn’t planned on seeing the launch but as you know, it was delayed. … So after I had my fill of Disney World, we decided to go. … I remember getting a Happy Meal at McDonald’s … and the toy was a blue plastic Challenger. …We bought a big button with Christa McAuliffe on it to bring home to my own teacher.”
“… Then the strange lines of smoke and fire started streaming down. My grandmother said it was beautiful. My dad said, ‘No, I think we just witnessed a tragedy.’ … On the drive back to the hotel we listened to the radio and the announcer listed the astronauts and who they were ‘survived by.’ I was hopeful when I heard that term … and asked if it meant they all lived. My mom explained what it really meant.”
Dumbstruck, I marvelled at the mysteries of time and space that had delivered me to Moore’s classroom and that had moved me to speak about my experience of the Challenger disaster.
As for Moore? “My heart always pangs when I hear … ‘Challenger,’” she later told me. “There was something so shocking about being there. As a child, I could tell from the reactions of the adults around me that it was … devastating.”
“However, as you continued telling the story … I had the … realization that you and I shared this historic moment … and that felt remarkable. It felt comforting. … I don’t normally talk about it, but I knew you’d get it.”
I do. And so today, (Thursday January 28, 2016) I’ll mark the 30th anniversary of the Challenger launch in solemn solidarity with the local journalism professor whose poignant memories punctuate my first big assignment.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance journalist in Halifax.