‘I Was Confused When I Saw Everyone’s Head Go Down’

By Alina Tugend — February 05, 1986 5 min read
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Steve McAuliffe, Christa’s husband, traveled with his two children to Framingham, Mass., with Ms. McAuliffe’s parents. He and the children were expected to return to Concord over the weekend. Until then, their chocolate-brown house remained empty, with only a police car standing guard in front.

Residents in this snow-covered New England town united last week in churches, homes, and bars, trying to understand a public—yet very personal—tragedy.

Within hours of the shuttle explosion, Concord was thrust into the national spotlight, as reporters and photographers from across the country descended on a citizenry jolted from joyful celebration to stunned grief in seconds.

Like most of the city’s 33,000 residents, students at Concord High School, where Sharon Christa McAuliffe taught, observed the event on television. Wearing party hats, the students were gathered in the cafeteria watching the liftoff, not realizing immediately what had happened.

“I was confused when I saw everyone’s head go down,” said Alex Scott, a sophomore at the school. “someone yelled ‘Quiet!’ I was still full of it. I walked back to the class and didn’t believe it. I thought we’d go back to class and she’d be up in space.”

“Shocked,” “numbed,” and “devastated” were the words people most often used to describe their feelings. Even those who didn’t know Ms. McAuliffe—or Christa, as she is universally called here—knew a friend or a neighbor who did.

And many, like Mandana Marsh, a local photographer and mother of a 4-year-old girl, likened their feelings when the shuttle exploded to the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.

“I was watching TV with my daughter on my lap when I saw it explode,” Ms. Marsh said. “I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears.”

A Town’s Mourning

Flags flying at half mast in front of the gold-domed statehouse and across the city were the most immediate signs of Concord’s mourning. Soon there were others. On the night of the explosion, residents gathered to pray at St. Peter’s Church, where Ms. McAuliffe had taught religious classes.

In another sort of establishment—a bar near the downtown area—Judy McGowen, a waitress, said everyone was devastated by the incident.

“I had to send our 16-year-old waitress home,” she said. “Many of the kids who work in the kitchen had Christa as a teacher or were looking forward to having her.”

A sign in the window of a market read: “Challenger Crew and Christa were brave. Let us be brave and attend a church service of your choice.” In this city where phone calls are still 10 cents and the main street is called Main Street, many residents turned to that traditional source of comfort.

Prayer Service

At a prayer service Wednesday morning at St. John the Evangelist Church, 300 uniformed students who attend St. John’s Regional Catholic School, ranging from kindergartners to 8th graders, somberly listened to Father Daniel Messier try to explain the incomprehensible events that had unfolded before them.

“We’re fortunate that we can come together and pray,” said Sister Irene Turgeon, principal of the school. “Christa’s hope will give them the courage to move o n with life. I’m sure some will say this is God’s fault; we say God’s ways are strange.”

Later that evening, a memorial service was held at the same church for all mourners. Friends, students, and those who had admired Ms. McAuliffe from afar crowded into the church. Many shed quiet tears as one priest told them, “Christa had a special and unique gift. She brought us laughter and life. As she told the students at Concord High, ‘Reach for the stars.’ ”

Second Crisis

The high school where Ms. McAuliffe taught was the focus of much of the attention, as teachers and counselors grappled with their own sorrow and that of the students.

It was the second tragic incident in as many months. In December, a recent dropout from the high school was fatally wounded by police in a gun battle in a school hallway after holding two students hostage at gunpoint.

Many had hoped the space launch would help students overcome that incident. Now, teachers are passing around the same memo on dealing with grief and loss that they circulated in December.

“We’re getting experienced at this sort of thing,” said John Reinhardt, director of school psychological services.

The high school was closed Wednesday, but counseling services were made available to the students.

Two signs at the school showed how quickly elation had turned to grief. One, over the front entrance, was an advertisement for a satellite dish. It read: “Helping Bring Christa Down to Earth.”

Another, on a tree on the front lawn, read: “We Love You Christa.” The tree was decorated with black ribbons, Ms. McAuliffe’s picture, and a poem dedicated to her. Students hugged each other and wept in front of the memorial.

Flowers, Telegrams

Hundreds of flowers and telegrams poured into Concord High School, including one from a Maine teacher offering to teach without salary in Ms. McAuliffe’s place.

School personnel also received offers of psychological help from as far away as California. President Reagan sent a condolence letter that was not meant to be made public until after the private memorial service for students and teachers that was scheduled to be held last Friday.

City officials are considering naming a new elementary school after Ms. McAuliffe.

Said Mark Beauvais, superintendent of schools for the district and a personal friend of Ms. McAuliffe: “I’m a superintendent. On the other hand, I’m a human being and have some very strong feelings of sadness and despair.”

Murals and Posters

At the district’s elementary and junior high schools, classes started late Wednesday as faculty members met with counselors and psychologists. When the children did come to school, many returned to halls and classrooms filled with space murals and bright posters commemorating their teacher in space.

At Walker Elementary School, an office was set aside for those teachers who felt the need to be alone during the day. Playing in the snow outside were bundled-up children who, had the launch gone according to schedule, were to have attended a Wednesday “Blastoff Breakfast.”

Mayor James MacKay proclaimed Friday “Christa McAuliffe Day.” A citywide memorial service was scheduled to be held Friday night.

Steve McAuliffe, Christa’s husband, traveled with his two children to Framingham, Mass., with Ms. McAuliffe’s parents. He and the children were expected to return to Concord over the weekend. Until then, their chocolate-brown house remained empty, with only a police car standing guard in front.

As the media representatives depart and the local papers find other news stories to report, Concord struggles to pick up the threads of normal life. But clearly it will be a long time before last week’s sadness fades. For as Father Messier said: “Christa became Concord through this. When she got on that shuttle, we got on with her. And when that explosion took place, it took place in our hearts.”

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