George Wilson, publisher of the Concord Monitor, and editor Mike Pride were in court here, listening to testimony in a labor case involving their paper, when word came that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded, killing Concord teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Pride ran from the courthouse to the Monitor office two blocks away. Wilson stayed to break the news to Edward E. Shumaker III, the paper's chief lawyer and law partner of McAuliffe's husband, Steve.

Shumaker finished questioning his witness, and Wilson motioned him out to the hallway.

"Christa's rocket left the pad and a short time afterwards exploded. It doesn't look good," Wilson said he told Shumaker, who dropped his papers and began to cry. "It was like he had been hit physically," Wilson said.

Wilson said Shumaker cried, " 'Oh God, oh God! . . . George, my kids were there. They saw that happen.' " The lawyer, whose wife had taken their three children to Cape Canaveral for the launch, went to a small room nearby "and stayed there," Wilson said.

A day later, this town of 32,000 is trying hard to come to terms with McAuliffe's death. The task is difficult here because, as in the courtroom Tuesday morning, almost everyone is somehow linked to McAuliffe and her family.

"People are really taking this very personally," Pride said later. "I mean, this woman touched a lot of people's lives."

Steve McAuliffe and their children, Caroline, 6, and Scott, 9, had not returned to Concord tonight. Unlike families of other victims of public tragedies in the media age, they and Christa McAuliffe's parents, Ed and Grace Corrigan, have managed to avoid encounters with reporters and cameras.

The Corrigans came home to Framingham, Mass., under heavy security with their four other children.

The Monitor, which has about 21,000 subscribers, is seen as a liberal voice in a state accustomed to conservative publishers. Its 13 reporters and a handful of editors began following McAuliffe weeks before she was selected last July from 11,000 candidates to be the nation's "teacher in space." Wilson said he and others had an early sense that this energetic woman would be NASA's choice.

Bob Hohler, the principal reporter on the story, once joked that he knew the 37-year-old social studies teacher better than she knew herself. He was at Cape Canaveral taking pictures of McAuliffe's parents as the shuttle lifted off.

"There was a big boom . . . . I looked up and there was a big cloud in the sky and embers falling like fireworks," Hohler said in a telephone interview from Florida Tuesday night. He recalled seeing huge plumes of fire and smoke and struggling to react like a professional.

"I thought, first of all, I've got to do my job . . . . I started saying, 'This is unbelievable. I can't believe it.' I was shaken. I was shaking. The reporter next to me was sobbing. She said, 'Will you hold me?' And I said, 'Yes.' "

Like so many parents with children here, Hohler had shared the excitement of McAuliffe's mission with his 6-year-old daughter, Lauren, and suddenly he was more concerned with her reaction than with history. He called her elementary school in Concord and asked that she be brought to the telephone.

"Is Christa dead?" she asked him.

"Well, I don't know yet, they're looking for her," Hohler told her. At that point, he said, the emotion he had struggled to contain all day welled up. When it was clear that no one had survived, Hohler spoke to Lauren again.

"I told her Christa was a pioneer and pioneers take great risks," Hohler said.

At a news conference at Concord High School today, school system psychologist John Reinhardt said children here have had a very difficult time believing that the accident has occurred.

Reinhardt said one boy told him "he felt almost as if it was a dream. He wanted to wake up and find it really didn't happen." The children were beset with every emotion from sadness and empathy with McAuliffe's family to anger, he said.

"They feel angry, and they don't know what to do with it," Reinhardt told reporters in the crowded school auditorium where many of the students had watched the explosion. He said there has been a search for a place to put the blame.

Reinhardt said he was surprised at the subdued reaction of the children at the Kimball Elementary School where Scott McAuliffe is a third grader. "The children were sad, but coping with it in a very mature fashion," he said.

A group of third graders from Kimball school were at Cape Canaveral Tuesday. Superintendent Mark E. Beauvais, who traveled with them back to Concord, described them as "incredibly resilient."

At the launch site, Beauvais said, "There was no way those students knew the gravity . . . of what happened." They saw the explosion but a parachute in the sky indicated that the crew might be safe, Beauvais said. The parachute was thought to have been flung from the exploding shuttle or dropped as a marker by support aircraft.

The children were escorted to nearby buses where some "hysterical adults" appeared to upset the children, Beauvais said.

The group stopped during their bus trip in front of a motel with a large lawn, a McDonald's nearby and a bathroom. "What more could a third grader want?" Beauvais asked. There the adults learned that the shuttle crew was dead but decided against telling the children.

After landing in Boston, most of the children slept on the bus back to Kimball school, where waiting parents had been briefed on the availability of counseling.

Beauvais noted that the children had attended a talk at the Cape by an astronaut who explained there is "danger as well as excitement in the space program." But the superintendent doubted the children -- or anyone else there that day -- had absorbed much.

"You don't want to hear that, so it's not going to register," he said.

At a memorial service this morning at St. John's Roman Catholic Church, a clergyman expressed a theme spoken across town today: the necessity and rightness of venting grief.

When bad things happen, "God doesn't just stand by and watch," the Rev. Daniel Messier told schoolchildren at his church. "God wants to hug you and say it's okay."

At the Monitor today, quiet, businesslike reporters and editors went about turning what had been a happy story into a memorial to a woman they had come to know well.

The Monitor staff, Wilson said, "did the same thing we always try to do. To help our readers understand it . . . . We assume our readers can make their own decisions on how to deal with it."

The Monitor pages have displayed a huge array of photos of McAuliffe in past months. On the front page of today's afternoon edition, there were three large, color photographs: two of Challenger lifting off and a third of a huge cloud of white and orange smoke against a deep blue sky.

In the lower right corner of the front page, was Bob Hohler's tribute to McAuliffe, who had called herself the first "ordinary person" in space. It began:

"Christa McAuliffe died yesterday with a few of her favorite things: her son's stuffed frog, her daughter's cross and chain, her grandmother's watch, her Carly Simon tape. She died with little things. Ordinary things.