From the Archive: Students in 1986 react to Challenger explosion

Posted 4/20/21

Something was wrong. Seasoned viewers of numerous launches of the space shuttle knew something was wrong.

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From the Archive: Students in 1986 react to Challenger explosion

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From the Archives highlights interesting stories from the over 100-year history of the Okeechobee News, many of which have never been online before.

Students stunned by shuttle news

By Diana Eichlin

Okeechobee News

Jan. 31, 1986

Something was wrong. Seasoned viewers of numerous launches of the space shuttle knew something was wrong.

It wasn't supposed to break off into two separate rockets. We'd never seen that huge ball of smoke before.

Local residents watching the 11:38 a.m. launch of the space shuttle Challenger Tuesday, left their backyards, school lawns and sidewalks, turning inside to television sets and radios to learn that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded.

The air filled with silence. No one who saw the launch or heard the news could believe it. No one wanted to believe it.

Maintaining vigils around television sets and radios throughout the day, whether at home, at the office or in classrooms, local residents hoped that reports would come that the seven shuttle astronauts, including school teacher Christa McAuffie, would be found alive. As the day progressed, however, the news reports only confirmed what everyone hoped they wouldn't hear. There was no chance anyone could have survived the massive explosion.

In Okeechobee schools, the cold weather, with temperatures only up to around 38 degrees at launch time, had prevented many teachers from taking their students outside. Some, however, had braved the elements to watch it anyway.

At South Elementary School, fourth-graders from Debbie Aaron and John Carroll's classes watched it.

“I realized there was some type malfunction," said Principal Mike McCranie. “I saw it split and knew it was different from the other launches. We got the students inside right away and went to the media center and turned on the TV.”

“The children were very concerned," he continued. "A lot didn't realize the significance of what they had seen untii later when we listened to it. They handled it very well, and they asked a lot of good questions, such as how it could have been prevented.’”

McCranie decided it was better to let all the children know what had happened. Teacher Oliver Harwas, who makes the announcements on the public address system at the school, told the students there had been a major malfunction during the launch of the space shuttle Challenger and that it had exploded. The announcement was made about 15 minutes after the accident.

"We'll probably take time to talk about it again with the students after we know more about it,'" McCranie said.

At North Elementary School, a couple of classes had watched the launch. Principal Roland Clercuzio said some of them asked why the shuttle had broken into two parts. "One of the students said it looked like it had exploded,'" Clercuzio said “Mostly their reaction was one of disbelief and shock."

The teachers at North were informed of the explosion and announced the news to their students.

Although she wasn't outside when the shuttle was launched, Mrs. Linda King, principal at Central Elementary, said a second-grade and a third-grade class had watched it.

“Their reaction was that it was a routine flight. They thought everything was normal," she said.

No announcement was made to the student body as a whole, said Mrs. King, but she felt the teachers shared the news with their students. About 300 students at the Fifth and Sixth Grade Center were changing classes, going to recess or going to lunch when they witnessed the shuttle launch.

“There was dead silence. It was awful,” said Mrs Paulette Whipple, assistant principal. The children stood around in disbelief. Do you know what they are like all week, so loud, so noisy? This afternoon it's been like a morgue around here.”

“I sent around a note to all the teachers telling them that all the seven aboard were believed dead. We had a moment of silence for them this afternoon," she continued.

The Fifth and Sixth Grade Center was planning on having about 400 of its students participate in the Teacher in Space classroom lesson. The school had planned on getting as many students as possible in the school auditorium to view the lesson on two monitors.

Ronda Mishler, a teacher at the Fifth and Sixth Grade Center, said one of the other teachers went at lunch and brought back a TV set. In another classroom, a parent brought in a TV for the students to watch.

“The last hour we watched the TV news, I had told my students to go home and watch the news tonight. One student has called me twice so far to let me know the latest developments.”

The TV in the library Okeechobee High School was surrounded by students during the entire lunch break, said Martha Knight, media specialist.

"Usually when we have that many students in the library they are so noisy. Not Tuesday. They were all so quiet, so concerned. It's like it happened to all of us. We finally had to turn the TV off because classes had begun. Many students asked if they could bring their classes back to watch the TV later."

Paul Smith, Okeechobee High School junior in 1986
Paul Smith, Okeechobee High School junior in 1986

Several students watched the launch from the windows of their classrooms. As those watching noticed that something was wrong, word spread quickly through the building.

"I saw it through a window in school," said Phil Smith, a senior. "I didn't know what had really happened until a teacher told me.'"

Mike Eddings, a senior, said "I didn't see it go up outside, but I went to the library and saw a replay. The explosion was like one of those confetti-pop things. Pieces went everywhere. The shuttle was different in the fact that a civilian was onboard. I think people (NASA) felt it was a matter of time when something like was actually going to happen."

Mike Eddings, Okeechobee High School senior in 1986.
Mike Eddings, Okeechobee High School senior in 1986.

Bert Ball, a chemistry teacher for grades 10-12, said he heard about it on the radio. "I don't have any reaction to the accident, I've got a meeting to go to."

“It was kind of weird because everything seemed to be going so smoothly," said Glenda Dukes, a sophomore. "All of a sudden, the shuttle just exploded. It's terrible, especially with the first teacher it.”

"I didn't believe it when Glenda first told me about it," said Nina Dukes, Glenda's sister, a sophomore. "I said, 'Sure, it exploded’. Something like that had never happened before. But when someone else told me it had happened, I started believing it was true."

It was lunchtime at Okeechobee Junior High School too when the shuttle was launched. Most of the school's seventh-graders were outside for the lunch break. "I looked up and saw all the smoke and didn't really realize what it was I was seeing. I couldn't make myself believe what my mind was telling me had happened," said Assistant Principal Dale Barrett.

During the course of the afternoon however, Barrett made several announcements to the student body over the public address system keeping them posted on any new developments.

“They were shocked, stunned, and showed sadness at the news," Barrett said. “The students were quiet because they were concerned; they were noisy because that's all they wanted to talk about.”

Wednesday morning during the school announcements which begin each day, an epitaph was read to the students and a moment of silence was held. It wasn't only the students and teachers at local school who were shocked and stunned at the news the shuttle had exploded.

A local legal secretary said she had a lump in her throat ever since she had heard the news. "My own children are 6 and 9. I just can’t imagine what it was like for them to see their mother killed,” she said.

School teacher Christa McAuffie's children, ages 6 and 9, were watching the launch with their father at the Kennedy Space Center.

Another resident told a co-worker minutes before the shuttle launch at there had been too many delays. “Something is going to go wrong this time," he said.

Barnett Bank Vice President Richard Coleman, who’s brother-in-law is one of the German scientists who traveled on the shuttle a few flights ago, said the shock of what happened was felt throughout the bank.

“They have been so successful throughout the past, but it’s a real tragedy,” he said.

Betty Schumaker, deputy clerk of Okeechobee County, didn’t know what to say. “It’s horrible. What can I say,” she said quietly.

“It’s a tragedy. That’s all that needs to be said about it,” said County Attorney Kyle VanLandingham. “It’s horrible.”

Okeechobee County School Board members, meeting Tuesday night had a moment of silence in lieu of a usual prayer preceding the meeting in memory of the seven who lost their lives aboard the Challenger.

No one speculated on the future of the space program, but one 15-year old told his mother, “Going in space isn’t any more dangerous than going to sleep at night. You never know for sure you’re going to wake up."

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