Like so many other people across the state, my family heard and felt the rumbling as the shuttle careened out of control on what should have been a joyous Saturday morning return to Earth.
When our house phone began ringing a few minutes later, I instinctively knew family plans for the day would be on hold, and my children would be asleep in bed by the time I returned home.
In the hours immediately following the crash, the Tyler Paper news staff was instructed to gather as much information and local reaction as possible, and then fan out in search of witness accounts as authorities pinpointed the crash site.
Friend and writing colleague Shauna Wonzer and I decided to ride together on our journey into the Piney Woods, as we were both unfamiliar with areas outside Smith County.
As we headed toward Nacogdoches, radio stations turned to static and our cell phones lost reception.
Our excited girl chatter quickly dimmed after spotting a state trooper parked on the side of the road, guarding a piece of mangled wreckage.
Passing more troopers and wreckage along the way, the seriousness of the situation became clear.
At one point, we stopped to inspect and photograph bits of debris but stayed a safe distance away on the realization the objects were evidence and East Texas was an accident site.
We stopped at the sheriff's office in Nacogdoches and gawked for a while at the growing throng of journalists before deciding to head out on our own in search of fresh information, hitting San Augustine, Hemphill and Jasper on our trip.
It was my first time to really see part of the back woods of East Texas — the forest was surprisingly dark, dense and void of homes.
We hoped aloud we didn't blow a tire along the way.
Eventually we pulled into a tiny community and spotted cooking smoke coming from what appeared to be a makeshift command post that was abuzz with activity.
It was misting and cold. The town's white rock roads were filled with watery potholes the size of Volkswagens.
We parked near the encampment and piled out of the car, hip-hopping over puddles to avoid getting our sneakers wet.
I was so busy puddle jumping, I nearly collided with a stern-looking man in muddy boots, who seemed to appear out of nowhere and wanted to know the nature of our business.
He was armed with a rifle and a disdain for outsiders.
Stepping back into a pot hole, I politely asked if he could direct us to the command post so we could interview someone in authority for a news update, but he refused and told us to be on our way.
I pressed a bit more, emphasizing the importance of this national disaster as well as our mission of keeping the public informed, and then stopped mid-sentence when it was obvious we were going nowhere.
His eyes were dark with anger.
“Git,” he growled, gripping the weapon. “Go on, you two. … Git.'”
Dusk was closing in as we scooted back to the car and headed back toward the main road, trying to figure out the best way out of town.
We were cold, wet, hungry and scared to death. Home suddenly seemed far, far away.
We eventually found a small hamburger joint in the middle of somewhere and stopped to grab a bite and pour over a wrinkled state map. The locals were happy to speak with us, saying it wasn't often “news people” stopped in.
With assistance, we regained our sense of direction and headed back to Tyler, grateful our workday would end in a few hours. It would be weeks before search teams would complete their mission and return to their homes.
Looking back on those days, I'm proud to have been a part of recording history for future generations, even if it meant losing my comfort zone and a good pair of shoes.
Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is a former Tyler Morning Telegraph reporter.