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U.S. Shocked at News of Shuttle Tragedy

February 1, 2003

Americans woke Saturday to images of the space shuttle Columbia disintegrating as it returned to Earth, killing seven astronauts. Another reminder of vulnerability. Another unnerving disaster with the nation still healing from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

``With all that is happening these days, it’s a very bad feeling,″ said Nancy Mitchell, a hardware store clerk in Confluence, Pa. ``It’s just one more thing _ a tragedy.″

Chika Umeh couldn’t help but think the explosion happened at an especially bad moment for the nation.

``Coming after 9-11 it’s very scary,″ said Umeh, 45, a Los Angeles taxi driver.

Parents struggled to explain to their children what had happened.

Mario Schembari said his 7-year-old daughter, Amy, will have little trouble coping with the news.

``Unfortunately, she’s getting used to stuff like that,″ the Oak Park, Ill., resident said as he and his daughter toured the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. ``The run we’ve had the last few years, the catastrophes.″

Audrey Schuckhaus, of Augusta, N.J., had just arrived at the antiques shop where she works when she saw co-workers huddled around a television set. White lines were streaking across a blue screen.

``Oh my God!″ she gasped.

``They went all the way up, were floating around in the atmosphere in outer space,″ she said. ``They were almost home, so close to being safe. It’s so sad.″

At American Legion Post 1520 in Albany, N.Y., patrons stared at the big-screen TV from around a circular bar.

Greg Ruth, a state worker, said the shadow of terrorism, coupled with the knowledge that an astronaut from embattled Israel was aboard, made him wonder if sabotage brought down Columbia.

``For the last year and a half, I think you’re going to feel that way,″ he said.

FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell said there was no indication of terrorism.

It was deja vu for schoolteachers who had watched the Challenger explode after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986, as it carried teacher Christa McAuliffe.

``It’s completely shocked me,″ said Danny Allen, a science teacher at Cumberland County High School in Burkesville, Ky. ``Nobody worries about the landing.″

He and other teachers were in the middle of a space simulation at the Challenger Learning Center in Radcliff when they heard that contact had been lost with Columbia.

``Oh, gosh, not again,″ said Mohamed El Filali of Paterson, N.J., when he heard the news on his car radio while running errands. ``It made me think of the Challenger, and what we went through with that. We realize that it’s still dangerous. Every moment you’re in the air, there’s danger.″

Ben Provencal, 25, of Concord, N.H., was a third-grade classmate of McAuliffe’s son, Scott, and said he had feared another disaster would happen.

``I’ve always waited for the next thing to happen,″ Provencal said. ``They are brave people to do that, but you just can’t do this business for years and years and years without losing people.″

John Baum of Lincoln, Neb., initially thought the news footage was images of the anniversary of the Challenger explosion.

``It took a while for me to realize that it was real, that it was live,″ he said.

Jack Fidel, a retired civil engineer in Las Vegas, had just put his waffles in the toaster when he sat down to watch television.

``The first thing I saw were the streaks of white in the sky. Everybody was dead,″ said Fidel, 70. ``A tear came to my eye for a second. Seven people on board. What a waste of life.″

Saturday’s explosion came 17 years after the Challenger disaster. While many had become accustomed to routine launches and landings, the accident stripped away some of that security and reminded Americans of the dangers of space travel.

``People don’t realize how impressive it is when you can put seven people in space,″ said Jason Thursten of Ferndale, Mich.

Charlie Dillon went to a Denver coffee shop to reflect on the accident and read a newspaper in the warm afternoon sun.

``The reality of what these people do has often escaped me,″ said Dillon, 52. ``But they are frontiersman, they’re out there making my life better and creating endless possibilities for my children.

``These people are risking their lives, and I need to start paying closer attention to the program,″ he said. ``I will from now on.″

Alice Wright, 78, a retired Chicago schoolteacher, walked up to the Space Shuttle Theater in the Museum of Science and Industry and said to her friend: ``Nobody’s going to want to be an astronaut for a while.″