The Challenger Disaster

January 28, 1986, was a day like any other.  I had just finished college in November, and had worked at the Fargo Target store as a Cart Attendant for just over two months.  I was scheduled to work that day at 9AM, with the store opening at 10AM way back then.

I started out by stocking each of the checkout lanes with four different sized paper bags:  There wasn’t a choice of plastic back then!  Then I moved on to the front doors and cleaned the finger prints off the glass.  There weren’t automatic openers back then, so each person pushed the door open by themselves, their hands often hitting the glass instead of the steel bar.  I followed these tasks with a trip through the sub-zero parking lot picking up litter before emptying the garbage containers that sat in front of the store.

 My last job before opening was to push a dust mop around the “racetrack,” collecting the scraps of cardboard and paper left behind by the store’s overnight stock team.  The stockers liked to listen to music while they worked, and they usually had one of the stereos in “Camera and Sound” cranked up really loud.  The other store employees seemed to like the music too, so they left the music playing until the daily announcement came:  “The store is opening in five minutes!”

 The music was blasting each day as I pushed the mop by the stereo display.  It seemed that Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” was playing many of those January mornings as I danced on by.

 On January 28, 1986, something was different.  When I came in from the parking lot, there was no music playing.  I thought I was running late picking up litter and had missed the store opening announcement.  I looked at my watch, but it was still only 9:50.  I grabbed my dust mop and headed out onto the racetrack, and turned towards “Camera and Sound.”  As I neared the stereo display, I heard the tinny sound of voices coming from a television set.  As I turned the final corner, I saw a dozen employees standing in front of a large screen TV, their eyes glued to the image.  I asked them what was going on, and someone said that the Space Shuttle Challenger had just blown up.

 I don’t know how long I stood there, watching the screen, but I’m sure it wasn’t more than five minutes.  In that brief time however, I saw images that are vivid in my memory, even today.  The burning pieces, flying apart in every direction, leaving arched trails of smoke made me sick to my stomach.  I felt so sorry for the brave men and women who were on board.  The network kept showing a photo of the crew, bringing the loss of life to its audience on a personal level.  The hardest part of the entire tragedy for me to deal with was the loss of teacher and mother Christa McAuliffe.  I know every one of the astronauts left behind loved ones, but the thought of two children losing their mother made my legs weak.

 Every generation has such moments frozen in time.   People will always remember what they were doing when they heard the news of something unthinkable occurring.  My grandparents had the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  My parents had the assassination of President Kennedy.  I remember the “Challenger Disaster.”

3 Responses

  1. I too remember the details of where I was and how I found out. So tragic. I still feel sick when I see the picture of the initial explosion and think of how quickly it ended for those astronauts who had such high hopes.
    I rememer the JFK, Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy assassinations and also 9-11 when I told one of my colleagues “This is our Pearl Harbor”

  2. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jim, for me, it was the 9-11 terrorist attacks. I remember the Challenger episode happening but I was late to learn the news. I remember feeling horrified, and seeing the repeat images on TV. But I missed being there as it was happening. So though important, that one wasn’t as indelibly fixed in my memory as 911. I was in the living room, doing the mom thing and watching the morning TV Show as usual when Katie Couric had to break due to the strange events that were unfolding. It was so unreal, and a deep fear of what might happen next overtook me as one disaster after another was reporter. It felt like the end of the world could happen. And it stayed with me a long time.

    1. I’ve had a few of those moments myself, when something that seemed impossible actually happened. I think the 9-11 attacks had the greatest impact on me as a person, and most certainly on us as a nation.

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