When the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated 35 miles overhead that Saturday morning, rattling our house, my wife rushed in to say something had exploded. Eerie howls of a family of coyotes, usually quiet that early, were replaced by barking neighborhood dogs as an unsettling crackling noise faded away. No smoke appeared on the horizon, just a dirty streak across the southern sky.
After an impromptu news meeting, huddled in a circle in the sports department, an initial list of eight assignments was expanded to 13. That would grow. Five reporters and two photographers were dispatched to Nacogdoches, Jacksonville and Rusk. Others manned phones and chased leads in Tyler.
One of many calls that came in was from a Tyler doctor, Dr. Scott Lieberman, who said he had captured the explosion on his camera from his back yard in far south Tyler. Richard urged him to bring his images to us, and he headed downtown.
We huddled over our options to expand an already hefty Sunday paper and decided to add six pages, giving readers as much information as possible in a six-page special news supplement that would be printed early, and using normal deadlines to deliver late-breaking developments on Page One.
Dr. Scott Lieberman arrived with the images in his camera. Almost immediately our chief photographer returned from the photo lab, saying, “You're not going to believe this. This guy's captured the moment of the explosion. ... And his stuff is good.” David's excitement spoke even louder than his words.
The doctor, a cardiologist who studied stars when not gazing into chest cavities, remained calm, but grew more excited as he monitored our reactions. I told him he had captured some great, historic photos, then asked him directly, “Are you offering these to us?” Yes, he said, the paper had been good to him, and he wanted us to have them. Then, with a Cheshire cat grin, he said, “Of course, I would love to be on the cover of Time, and I was hoping you could help me with that.”
By then, it was noon. The BBC in London called to interview me about how our paper was covering the story. They liked it, but I don't recall much of what I said.
When the Lieberman photos hit the wire, the phones started ringing with people wanting to short-circuit the deal he had cut with the wire service. AP member newspapers could use it as part of their agreement, and hundreds did ... all around the world. But I fielded calls from Newsweek, People, Time, photo marketing agencies and a wayward news director from an Oklahoma City TV station. I forwarded them to Jim and Dr. Lieberman during their negotiations, then on to the AP after the deal was struck.
Soon, by 3:30 p.m., our own photos and local stories started pouring in. During our news budget meeting, we determined the play and placement of every story, looked over photo possibilities and talked about headlines. Everyone put their heads down and worked toward that first deadline, and the 8:30 p.m. early run started on time. “Disaster in the Sky: A Nation Mourns” was the headline over a huge photo of debris raining from the sky and photos of the seven astronauts who lost their lives.
We continued editing copy, building and proofing pages until all our deadlines were met, then waited for the pressroom crew to do their work and crank up that big press. It rolled around midnight.
After plotting the next day's staffing and coverage, most of us drifted toward home. Few could sleep, caught up in the story, watching TV news reports until hours later.
Sunday was another long day. Monday and Tuesday were more normal but extremely busy. On Monday, our photographer stumbled across debris in the woods near Hemphill that turned out to be the shuttle's nose cone. Tuesday, he discovered a New York FBI dive team on the shore of an East Texas lake while journalists from around the world took tours of the nose cone debris he had shot the day before.
Some who don't understand journalists might call us callous or uncaring. Actually, we care deeply.
Many tears were shed in and around that newsroom. But when news is breaking, journalists just have to move and keep moving. You might allow yourself a few seconds or minutes of numbed silence while you absorb the enormity of the tragedy. I saw it when Delta Flight 191 crashed at DFW in 1985, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff in 1986, when the Branch Davidian compound burned in 1993, and when the Towers fell in 2001. But you put that aside until later; your immediate job is to tell the story.
The story of space shuttle Columbia's fiery plunge into the forests and fields of East Texas is now part of history. What we wrote and photographed in 2003 is part of that larger sad saga. And filling those chapters are personal stories of heroes and heroines, honor and courage, grief and generosity, pathos and perseverance. I will forever be proud of how East Texans, including our news staff, responded.
Coming home that first night, as I followed a lonely rural road to my house in the country, three tiny pieces of white foam brushed past my windshield. I don't know if it was from the shuttle or just flakes from a crushed Dixie cup blown by the wind, but when I pulled into my drive, I stood for a long while looking up at the dark sky. It seemed much emptier than usual.