With a backdrop as large as the sky itself and shock waves felt around the world, the story of the shuttle Columbia's destruction was nonetheless as local as a front yard in Dallas or a Louisiana parish.
Local Dallas TV provided historic footage of the shuttle's disintegration. WFAA-TV had assigned cameraman John Pronk to shoot the shuttle's flight over the city. His video would be distributed around the world over CNN's networks within minutes of the realization that the shuttle was lost.
Meteorologists throughout the Southwest had advised viewers that Saturday morning would bring especially favorable viewing conditions, and one of those watching from his front lawn was another WFAA-TV photographer and space enthusiast, Timb Hamilton, shooting with station equipment.
Hamilton may have been the first to realize that what he had witnessed, which to him resembled someone "throwing a handful of sparklers," was a real tragedy. He says he ran into his house to pack a "go-bag" and head to the station for what he knew would be a long work day.
Although the live video had been seen undoubtedly by thousands, it was NASA's subsequent concern over the loss of contact with the shuttle moments later that led stations and networks to report the tragedy.
In Houston, Belo and Time Warner's News 24 cable channel were in the midst of coverage of the shuttle landing, says News Director Jeff Alan, so the drama of the lost communication played out in real time. The phrase "We're going to a contingency" was a tip-off to his staff that there was trouble, he says. "We went non-stop and commercial free for the next 36 hours."
KXAS-TV Fort Worth, Texas, cameraman James Lenamon was also assigned to shoot the shuttle over Dallas, but for later airing. That later airing included the NBC network and hundreds of NBC affiliates, distributed by the network's NewsChannel.
"It did look strange to me," he recalls, "but I hadn't seen a shuttle coming in during the daytime before. I thought it's possible that that's normal, part of the process of coming into the atmosphere. I wondered about it but told myself, 'Of course it's not breaking up.'"
Lenamon fed the video to the station, and he and reporter Lisa Smith began setting up their next shot, outside an exclusive school in Burleson, when the station told Smith to get back to the station.
Inside the ENG truck, Lenamon says, "I could see my video running on national [NBC]. It was an overwhelming moment, knowing I'd just seen seven people lose their lives. I've filmed other things, scenes that were the result of violence, never the actual event itself." Comforted by Smith, he says, "I broke down and cried for a few minutes." Lenamon and Smith continued on the story and, by that evening, were in a field of shuttle debris in Nacogdoches, Texas.
KLFY-TV Lafayette, La., Chief Meteorologist Rob Perillo routinely sets up a camera in his yard for shuttle landings. Because the station set up multiple cameras for a University of Louisiana dormitory implosion the same morning, Perillo had to use his personal High 8mm video recorder. But, his News Director Dee Stanley says, Perillo knew instantly what he had seen. "We heard the sonic boom and figured it was the implosion," Stanley remembers. "Then we heard a series of booms that actually were the implosion. And then Rob called me and said we've lost the shuttle."
Perillo took his video to the station quickly—believed to be the only video from Louisiana. Within minutes, that video, too, was out over CNN via fiber uplink, and he was being interviewed as a witness to the tragedy.
Space buffs shooting amateur video have already emerged as an investigatory tool. Independent KTVK(TV) Phoenix was the first to air a video that suggested the shuttle may have been having trouble before reaching Texas, which could be a key part of the investigation. The video was shot by a father and son, who took it to the station, which later gave it to NASA. Aired locally on Monday, it was going across the country via CNN by the next morning. "The video shows a couple of large chunks coming out of the shuttle," says News Director Dennis O'Neill.