Remembering, reporting on shuttle disaster

By Tom Wills - 5 & 6 p.m. anchor

I grew up a child of the space age.  From “Captain Video” and “Captain Midnight,” to Sputnik, Vanguard rocket launches, Alan Shepard and President Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon, they all made a tremendous impression on me in my youth.

As a young broadcaster in Washington, D.C., I was one of four staff members at WTOP, the all-news radio station who was assigned to round-the-clock monitoring and reporting of every moment of the Apollo 11 mission.

We followed the entire flight plan, line by line. (As the junior member, the lunar landing and the moon walk did not occur on one of my shifts).

Since joining WJXT in 1975, I have had the privilege of covering launches and landings at the Cape.  The experience is unforgettable, even spiritual, to witness the power of those rockets as they break free from earth’s gravity.

I always get emotional watching them.

On the morning of January 28, 1986, I knew I could watch Challenger lift off before getting ready to go to work, but the only channel to see it was CNN.  (Our family had only recently acquired cable TV).  The big three networks no longer carried shuttle launches live because they had seemingly become "routine."

Just 73 seconds into the flight, like all of us, I could not comprehend what I was seeing.  None of us had ever witnessed anything like it.

I immediately got dressed and drove to the station, listening to the radio in disbelief.

Tom Wills and Deborah Gianoulis anchor Jan. 28, 1986 newscast

I asked my then co-anchor, Deborah Gianoulis, how she remembered getting the news:

 “I recall my husband, David, and I were sitting in our lawyer’s office.  I was in my royal blue maternity dress.  We were signing our wills which we wanted to finalize before our second child was born.  One of the secretaries came into the office and said we needed to come see the TV right away. I left immediately for the station."

Our network, CBS, and the others were in continuous coverage.  Nevertheless, Deborah and I went on the air at 6 o’clock with an expanded edition of our local newscast.

Two of our stories that evening are the most memorable.  Our interview with Mike Reynolds, the Fletcher High School science teacher who was a teacher-in-space finalist.  His comments about Christa McAuliffe were insightful and powerful. 

The other was an interview with Gov. Bob Graham. One of our reporters was flying with Graham that morning as he was campaigning around the state. Everyone on the plane watched the launch from the air and were left in stunned silence by what they saw.  Like everyone, they were baffled, but even before they learned the details, they all knew something terrible had just occurred.

Since shuttle flights resumed in September 1988, Channel 4 has carried every one live. We all learned there is nothing routine about space flight.  Sadly, in February 2003 when Columbia was returning to Florida from a mission. We learned there is also nothing routine about shuttle landings.

Copyright 2016 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.