IT PROMISED TO BE A beautiful Saturday, this first day of February, with a cloudless sky and a predicted high of 70 degrees. Already the sun was easing the chill of early morning. I let the cat out the back door and took one last look at the newspaper. It was just before eight o’clock.
That’s when the boom hit, followed by a series of rumbles. It rattled the windows and caused the wooden blinds to sway against the French doors.
At first I thought a tanker had overturned and exploded. I live south of Nacogdoches, about one hundred yards off U.S. 59, a busy north-south route through East Texas’ Pine Curtain. Truck explosions have occurred a number of times in the nearly thirteen years I’ve lived here. But when I stepped outside, I didn’t hear any sirens, just the familiar dull roar of traffic on the highway. I looked up and saw a ragged contrail bisecting the sky and quickly breaking apart. I remembered hearing a few minutes earlier on NPR that the space shuttle Columbia was about to land in Florida. I’ve seen a shuttle coming across East Texas twice before. Once it was nearly dusk, and the shuttle was a brilliant orange streak flashing across the sky in seconds—a beautiful sight.
I shrugged, figuring that I had just missed seeing the shuttle again. A few minutes later, when I arrived in town to meet some friends at Schlotzsky’s Deli, I watched the restaurant’s owner, a friend of mine, hang up the phone and repeatedly run his fingers through his gray hair. His face was white and his eyes wide.”
They say they’re finding pieces of the shuttle in Nacogdoches,” he said.
I’M THE EDITOR AND PUBLISHER of the Daily Sentinel in Nacogdoches. It’s basically my dream job. Back when I was a student here at Stephen F. Austin University, in the seventies, I used to tell my college buddies over buckets of cheap beer that this was my career ambition. Most of the other students saw Nacogdoches, an agricultural town of 30,000—invariably referred to as “Nac-a-nowhere”—as a place to get an education and get out. But I’d fallen in love with the community the moment I’d first seen it, and there hasn’t really been a day since that I haven’t been excited to go to work. Then again, when the space shuttle blows up in the sky above your little town, suddenly, at least for a time, the entire world seems to be hanging on every story you produce, every photo that is transmitted. The stakes of small-town journalism change in a hurry. Less than a minute after my friend’s somber announcement, I was in my Jeep, headed to the office about two miles away.
When I got to the newsroom, the police scanner crackled nonstop. I heard dispatchers sending officers all over the city and out into the county as people began calling 911 to report debris falling out of the sky. “The space shuttle has just come over,” said one caller, “and I have a piece of it. We are on South Street, and I have a piece of it in my truck.” On and on the calls came in to the dispatchers—the 200 block of Seale Street, the 1000 block of Virginia Avenue, Pearl Street near Main Street, County Road 843, Lake Nacogdoches, Littles Chapel Road, Douglass, near the Second Baptist Church, Farm-to-Market Road 2259, near Pinkston’s garage—all places I recognized instantly.
Groggy-eyed reporters and layout people began wandering in to work. Most arrived before I could get ahold of them; they simply knew to come to the office. But my managing editor, Robbie Goodrich, usually my right arm, was in Dallas that day for her father-in-law’s birthday party. I left a ridiculous-sounding voice mail on her cell phone: “Robbie, the shuttle has crashed in Nacogdoches. Call when you get this message.”
The scene in the newsroom quickly became chaotic. Within the first few hours, we were invaded by out-of-town photographers and reporters borrowing desk space and phone lines to send out reports. And our own phones didn’t stop ringing. Local citizens and news outlets from across the country called wanting information and phone numbers. Photo syndicates were bidding to buy exclusive rights; television networks wanted interviews. The district attorney called to say that the roof of his mother’s house had been pierced with debris and that he could see blue sky from inside the attic. CNN called to ask for a digital image of our first front page to show on Aaron Brown’s nightly show. The Associated Press bureau in Dallas called several times wanting to know where my story was. At one point, I had a cell phone to one ear and a landline phone to the other, all the while talking to someone in the newsroom.
We posted our first account and photos to the newspaper’s Web site and AP by ten o’clock. I wrote a quick-and-dirty, bare-bones account of what we knew, based on what our handful of people in the field had reported, along with what I had gathered from the scanner and phone calls. Our one staff photographer, Andy Brosig, transmitted a shot of two National Guardsmen standing watch over a piece of the shuttle in a bank parking lot. That photo ended up on the front page of the Miami Herald’s extra edition and in the extras produced in Atlanta and Austin. I found out later that our Web site’s number of daily page views jumped from 10,000 on Friday to 269,000 on Saturday.
With our first story filed, I decided to see for myself what was happening. I got back in my Jeep, and when I rounded the corner near our office, I saw Regions Bank president Ron Collins lowering the flags in front of his building to half-staff. He was intent on his task and never saw me.
NACOGDOCHES, WITH ITS RED-DIRT ROADS, stately homes, and gently rolling terrain, is a Southern town that would not be out of place in