Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger Disaster: Thirty Years Later

Thirty years ago today, I was sitting in my office at Saint Mary Magdalen Church in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where I served as director of liturgy and music. It was a very cold, crisp morning, by Central Florida standards. The 500 plus kids in our Catholic school were all standing out on the soccer field, shivering in the cold.

One of the really cool things about living in Central Florida, at least for this northerner, was watching the launches of the space shuttles. Even though we were over fifty miles away, we could still watch the trail of smoke as the shuttles soared into the air. On more than one occasion, I would set an alarm, grab a lawn chair, and sit in a vacant field near my house for the spectacular night launches. It was like watching an instant sunrise.

Since I had seen so many launches, one very close up on the sands in Cocoa Beach, I decided to stay in my office that cold January morning. Someone rushed into our music suite and said that something had gone terribly wrong with the launch. I ran outside and saw our school teachers ushering very confused and startled children back into the school. I looked up in the air and saw the reason. It was obvious that just a minute before, something had indeed gone terribly wrong. The trail of smoke from the Challenger still hung in the air, but where it stopped, I could see trails of other smoke cascading down to the earth.

The school children were on the soccer field for this particular launch, of course, because Christa McCauliffe, the first school teacher in space, was aboard the doomed flight.

About an hour after the disaster, when it was clear that there was no way that any of the astronauts could have survived the explosion, I was summoned to the pastor's office, where I found the pastor and the principal of the school. They asked me to put together a prayer service for the children that would help address their shock, grief, and confusion. The way a kindergartner reacts and the way an eighth-grader reacts to a tragedy like this is very different.

Frankly, I don't remember much about the prayer service, save two things. Firstly, I had never seen a group of more than five hundred children more silent than that day when they assembled in the Church. And secondly, we were asked to choose a piece of music that we thought would be appropriate. So, my associate and I sang Eternal Father, Strong to Save. It was one of the most difficult moments in my music ministry. My voice tends to fail when I feel intense emotion, but somehow we got through those final two verses, which is my continued prayer on this day thirty years later.

O Spirit, whom the Father sent To spread abroad the firmament;O Wind of heaven, by your might Save all who dare the eagle's flight,And keep them by your watchful careFrom ev'ry peril in the air.

O Trinity of love and pow'r, Your children shield in danger's hour;From rock and tempest, fire and foe, Protect them wheresoe'er they go: And then shall rise with voices freeGlad praise from air and land and sea. 

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I remember this day distinctly. I was a freshman in high school and I am pretty sure we had TVs tuned in to the coverage on in the classroom. It was a special, celebrated event at my all-girls Catholic High School. When the tragedy happened, the principal made some sort of announcement over the P.A. and every classroom stopped whatever we were doing and we just started praying. I remember being so sad for her children and even at 15, incredulous that this could happen, pretty much live on TV. This is one of three "news" events that really stand out for me, alongside the initial bombs being dropped in the Persian Gulf War (I was in a dorm cafeteria my sophomore year in college when that news broke) and 9/11 (I was in my car on the Kennedy Expressway and then at my office).