Christa Mcauliffe's Shadow | Yankee Classic
Excerpt from “Christa’s Shadow,” Yankee Magazine, June 1986.
After watching Christa Mcauliffe’s every move for seven months, Bob Hohler had his back turned when she died. The tall, lanky columnist for her hometown newspaper, the Concord Monitor, was snapping pictures of the teacher’s mother and father when he heard what he thought was a sonic boom. Then he heard the flight announcer say, “Obviously a major malfunction.”
“All of a sudden there was a great silence,” Hohler said a month later, sitting in an editor’s office in the Monitor newsroom. “I was looking at people through my camera, watching their expressions change. Nobody was reacting quickly to it. It was a suspended moment.
“I looked around and saw the cloud,” he went on. “There were the two boosters coming out of it. I had never seen a launch, and I thought one of those must be the shuttle. It must be – nothing else came out of the cloud. Then they said the vehicle had exploded.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is incredible, unbelievable.’ But I continued to snap pictures. It was my job. I was still thinking like a reporter – a disbelieving reporter. I hadn’t accepted the fact that there was death up there. They were talking about parachutes, and I envisioned this great drama unfolding with paramedics fishing the crew out of the water. Then, after a few seconds, I realized there was something tragically wrong here.
“There were people wailing, and people on their knees praying. But still, I was thinking like a reporter. It was my natural reaction — maybe a defense mechanism. I don’t confront a lot of my emotions. I put that into my job. I remember I was rushing around, trying not to confront what had happened. The reporter for the Union-Leader, who was right next to me, started to unravel. She was sobbing and she said, ‘Will you hold me?’ At that point I did sort of well up a little. But I didn’t hold her too long. I had to dash off to do my deadline story.”
The Concord Monitor is one of the diminishing number of afternoon dailies, and Hohler had only a few minutes to write a brief report of what had happened and phone it back to New Hampshire. He finished it, called it in, then immediately called his six-year-old daughter Lauren at her elementary school in Concord. He knew she had been watching the launch along with every other schoolchild in Concord. She knew that her father had been following Christa wherever she went for a long time. He wanted to reassure her that he had not followed Christa away forever.
“Is Christa dead?” she asked him on the phone.
“It doesn’t look good,” he admitted to her.
“I really had a hard time holding myself together then,” Hohler recalled. “She sensed something was wrong, but she was excited about being called out of class to the telephone, and she was giggling about it. That helped me get through it.”
But when he finished the call, he could not relax, could not reflect on what had happened. He was surrounded by other reporters from newspapers all over the world, from television networks and radio stations. They wanted his reaction to the apparent death of the teacher from Concord. Her family and friends had been hustled away to seclusion, and of all those left in the confused aftermath of the disaster, Bob Hohler knew her best. He was no longer just another reporter on the Christa story. He had become part of the story.
He answered the questions as best he could. He turned down the requests to appear on TV, all except the CBS Morning News. He even lied to them, saying he was flying home that night, but they persisted. All right, he said, if he could write his follow-up story that night, and if he came to the space center the next morning to phone it in, maybe he could do five minutes on the air.
He stayed up all night writing his story, perhaps the 50th story he had written about Christa in the last seven months. There was so much to say in a short space.
Christa McAuliffe died yesterday with a few of her favorite things: her son’s stuffed frog, her daughter’s cross and chain, her grandmother’s watch, her Carly Simon tape. She died with little things. Ordinary things.