Our house shook violently.
“I think you're going to have to go to work today,” he said. “The space shuttle is missing.”
Missing? What does that mean? He continued by saying that people from Dallas to Louisiana were reporting an explosion. Had we heard it? I looked at Larry. His eyes widened.
There would be no survivors. I didn't even know there was a shuttle up, I thought with a pang of guilt. You see, I was in fourth grade at Stevens Elementary in Houston when the Challenger exploded live on the TV in front of our classroom. Astronauts were my childhood heroes. I felt sick.
I got my assignment that day, which was to stay in Tyler and make sure no debris had fallen here. None had, so I settled into the newsroom, answering phones, relaying messages, getting background and editing copy for reporters in the field.
Dr. Scott Lieberman showed up, camera in hand, to tell us he had captured the moment the shuttle exploded. Not only did this happen here, but we had the photo that would be shown around the world. It was an exhausting day. Everyone stayed until the presses rolled that night. No one wanted to leave.
There were teams there from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana by this point. Trucks in the parking lot indicated they were volunteer fire departments, equine and canine search teams, and GPS experts.
I stayed for hours mostly in the parking lot and caught the volunteers as they stopped in to grab food before heading out again. I interviewed everyone from the searchers themselves to the people who showed up to help feed them and their animals. The answers from these volunteers were very similar. They had all felt drawn here to help.
Later that day, I would go to the Nacogdoches County Sheriff's complex. The entire area in front of the office was filled with news trucks from all over the country.
I parked my Jeep just off the road and picked my way through trucks, campers, generators, wires and cameras. I covered a few official updates from the sheriff that day.
Then, I saw The Salvation Army canteen from Tyler. I stepped inside to interview the couple manning the RV. They welcomed me inside and made me a sandwich to eat while we visited. I had to get back to Tyler to file my story, but before I left, someone, and I can't remember who, showed me a piece of debris among the clutter of RVs and news trucks. There it lay on the brown grass, a piece of one of Columbia's tiles. It looked like a 2-foot-thick chunk of white concrete with black flecks in it.
The weather on the day the explosion happened had been bright and sunny. As so often happens in Texas in February — it deteriorated quickly. It often sleeted on searchers as they combed through the dense forests and swamps of deep East Texas.
The nose cone had been found outside Hemphill. My next assignment was to go to there and talk to the townspeople to get their story. It was cold and raining when I parked just off the town square that morning.
I visited a restaurant, an antique store that also was a beauty shop, and the chamber of commerce. Considering this was a town of about 1,000 that had just swelled to twice that, they were all welcoming and friendly.
I sat and visited and heard the story of the father and son funeral home owners who had volunteered to collect the remains of the astronauts. But, the ladies in the beauty shop assured me, they won't talk to the media.
On my way out of town later that evening, I decided to stop by the funeral home anyway.
I knocked on the door and told them I was from Tyler. I don't know if I looked tired and cold, but to my surprise, they welcomed me in. We sat at their kitchen table while I explained that I didn't want any details about recovering remains, but that I wanted to know their story and how this event had affected them.
I shared my story of being a fourth-grader when Challenger exploded in front of my eyes. Slowly at first, they both shared their stories of a quiet morning, explosion, phone calls, sirens, and then how everything had changed. I ate some stew with them, thanked them for their stories and headed out for the long drive home.
SIX MONTHS LATER
By this time, NASA knew the cause of the explosion, the astronauts had been laid to rest, and everyone was discussing memorials and where they should be.
The landscape was completely different with green trees, warm weather, and no news trucks, volunteers or NASA folks anywhere. Byron Starr, the son and co-owner of the funeral home in Hemphill, was writing a book about his experience called “A Search for Heroes.”
The lesson seemed the same no matter who I talked to. These small towns hidden in the East Texas piney woods where everyone knew everyone else had become the epicenter of an international story.
These were people who stood ready to help neighbors affected by floods, fires and even tornadoes, but they had never even thought of anything like this.
Time had made the emotions less raw and the townspeople had all had time to reflect on how this tragedy had changed their communities.
It was something they would never forget, partly because of the strangeness of how a bright, sunny Saturday morning could go so wrong; but also because they learned that while searching for heroes who fell from the sky, they also found heroes among their neighbors.
Ms. Krantz is a former Tyler Morning Telegraph reporter who was part of the shuttle-coverage team.