The horror dawned slowly

By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 29, 1986; 12:00 AM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Jan. 28, 1986 -- Awareness came slowly, not in a fiery burst, to those watching the shuttle launch from the better seats -- the grandstands set up for families of the astronauts, dignitaries, the news media and a class of third graders with connections.

The chest-trembling, concussive roar of the liftoff, lagging behind the rising spaceship, had reached us. The spacecraft, clinging fly-fashion to the "wall" of tanks containing 3.8 million pounds of fuel, had been up about one minute.

We were gasping and cheering at the column of fire-topped smoke growing like a beanstalk into a cold, blue sky. As the rumbling sound (still trailing the visible scene) continued, a curious rooster tail seemed to form almost gently at the top, with glints of fire in it.

It took an age to realize that the column ended there.

One of the smaller solid rocket boosters could be seen looping out and back in toward the shuttle, trailing smoke. Other trails appeared.

"Obviously. . . a major malfunction. . . has occurred," the voice of Mission Control, Steve Nesbitt, who normally speaks crisply, said slowly over the NASA public address system.

"They're coming back," said Reader's Digest writer Malcolm McConnell, who has covered 10 launches. He and several other reporters started running, planning to make their way to the landing strip several miles away where the shuttle was to return in an emergency. There were confused shouts, swearing, a short scream.

Then, still looking up, McConnell sat back down. "Where are they?" someone asked. "Dead," he answered flatly. "We've lost 'em, God bless 'em."

Phrases drifted down from Mission Control. ". . . Appeared nominal through engine throttle-back . . . apparent explosion. . . . Tracking crews have reported that the vehicle had exploded."

Shortly, there was the announcement that an "impact point" had been located in the ocean.

The rumbling sounds from the sky gradually died away. The scattered screams and shouts died. The immediate families of the astronauts were escorted quickly away to the crew quarters. Other relatives and visitors were urged onto the buses that had brought them to the scene.

Then this stretch of Kennedy Space Center along an Atlantic Ocean beach was overwhelmed in silence.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company