Seventh in a series
By Patrick Vecchio
When the space shuttle Challenger burst into a fireball of horror and history on January 28, 1986, I wasn’t watching the live broadcast. In that sense, I was like most Americans. But unlike most Americans, I was learning about the disaster as quickly as details became available.
That morning marked the first time I had been trusted to lay out page 1 for the newspaper where I was working. I had worked there for four years and wanted to show the editors I could handle the increased responsibility.
We were an afternoon paper and went to press at around 11:30 a.m. each day, but with the Challenger’s liftoff scheduled for around that time, the managing editor decided we would hold page 1 and go to press late so we could include a last-minute story about the launch. The rest of the page was ready; I simply left a column open at the top of the page with two headlines ready to go: one saying the shuttle had lifted off, the other saying NASA scrubbed the launch because of the chilly Florida air.
The Associated Press transmitted stories into different “queues” in our computer system: sports stories into the sports queue, business stories into the business queue, etc. I kept checking the “urgent” queue for news about the flight.
Somebody from the advertising department came running into the newsroom.
“The space shuttle exploded!” he blurted.
The managing editor poked his head out of his office.
“Got anything?” he barked.
I refreshed the “urgent” queue, and there it was: a single-sentence bulletin.
This was long before social media, but the Associated Press began reporting the story in Twitter-like fashion. First came a sentence. Then came a couple of sentences to tack onto the first sentence. This would continue until the AP moved a complete version of the story as it stood at that moment.
Then they might transmit a fresh lede (the first paragraph of the story) to replace the earlier lede. Then they might move a “write-thru”—a story with additional facts and smoother writing. That isn’t the exact sequence of what happened with the Challenger story—believe me, no one was keeping track. But it’s a good description of how the story moved in bits and pieces that appeared in the “urgent” queue seemingly seconds apart.
The managing editor quickly and correctly decided he needed someone with more experience on the front page, so he replaced me with our veteran page layout man, Jack Ring. His job was to put together the best possible version of the story while we balanced our need to go to press ASAP. I had allocated a single column for the story, but this disaster called for six full columns at the top of the page with a huge, bold headline. Then, the rest of the page had to be rebuilt—physically. This was long before QuarkXPress and InDesign.
Under that heaviest of deadlines, Jack maintained his calm in the midst of near chaos. As bits and pieces of the story filtered in, Jack coolly asked someone to check for photographs. Back in 1986, AP photographs came through one at a time because they were printed out on a photo machine. Each photo would take about a minute and a half to print. On this morning, the machine seemed slower than usual.
After we went to press about 12:15, we grabbed a bunch of the first papers from the presses and looked over page 1 for errors—places where paragraphs had been transposed or duplicated. The story was clean. At that point, people started shaking Jack’s hand for his steady efficiency or calling out compliments to him from across the newsroom. We looked at each other the way journalists do after they realize they’ve just witnessed history in real time and provided their readers with the best available version of that history. And then we immediately began planning how to cover the story for the next day.
A little later, as we set aside our professional selves for the day, the horror of what had happened washed over us: The fireball. The weird, Y-shaped contour, slashing white across the blue sky. The billowy burning rocket fuel and debris floating across the sky like a surrealistic snowdrift. The deaths of the seven people aboard the craft, including a schoolteacher.
And the lingering feeling that the story we had been immersed in somehow wasn’t real.