January 28th, 2011
07:39 AM ET

Zarrella on 25 years ago: 'We realized that something was really wrong'

Editor's note: John Zarrella was the CNN network correspondent on site when the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster occurred. He recalls that day:

When I went to the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986, to cover the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, I was expecting it to be routine, like the launches I had covered in the past. The only thing different this time was the excitement that surrounded the first teacher-turned-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe.

It was brutally cold, and the weather caused the launch to slip several times during the morning. Just before launch, I walked down to the countdown clock, as was tradition among the journalists, and waited for liftoff. I remember that typical winter clear-blue sky as Challenger took off.

A little more than a minute into the launch, from where I was standing, you could see a cloud of smoke and then what looked like fireworks shooting out from the cloud.

All of us standing there had no idea what it meant. We just looked at each other with puzzled faces as we waited for the orbiter to appear from behind the cloud. After a few seconds, we realized that something was really wrong.

That is when I ran about 30 yards to where my photographer, Steve Sonnenblick, was filming. I knew he had a closer view through the lens of his camera. In a panic, I said to him, "What happened?" He replied, "The (expletive) thing exploded." At that point I just thought, "Oh my God."

I immediately ran to the NASA newsroom. When I walked through the door, it was total chaos. Reporters were screaming at the NASA public affairs officers, demanding that they be taken out to the space shuttle landing strip.

A lot of people thought if the shuttle had survived, the astronauts might try an RTLS (return to launch site) abort. The NASA folks were screaming back that no one was going anywhere until they had a better understanding of what had happened.

At times you really felt like fistfights were going to break out. No one ended up going out to the landing strip because mission control in Houston quickly reported that the vehicle had exploded.

That was the beginning of monthslong coverage of what was at the time the worst disaster in NASA history. I will never forget that image. When I close my eyes, I can see what I once thought looked like fireworks: the Challenger and its crew gone in 73 seconds. The nightmares I had of space shuttles exploding finally ended, but it took several years.

Visit CNN.com's complete coverage: Remembering Challenger

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Filed under: Shuttle • Space
soundoff (131 Responses)
  1. peggy

    Wow remember watching this on T.V.

    January 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bryant

    Seems like just yesterday...I was 12 at the time. We had a snow day here in Connecticut and I was over my friends house playing. I remember after I heard, I would call back to my house every half hour or so to ask my Mom if they had "found the astronauts yet"...a very sad day.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Valerie

    I will never forget that day nor the people that were involved. I was 8 years old and so excited to see The first teacher in Space. This was my first time witnessing a space shuttle take off and when it split up I didn't know that it had exploded and the people died. After my teachers had told me what happened, my class and I grieved like the rest of the country. I can't believe it's been 25 years already. I will be forever grateful for the men and women that went up in space and sacrficed their lives that day. To the men and women who went up that day, we salute you. We will not forget. To the families, May God Bless you and comfort you today and always. God Bless America!

    January 29, 2011 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
  4. tlcsgt

    I realize this story is about remembering the tragedy . . . not who covered it . . . but please give credit where credit is due. While Mr. Zarrella is a nice guy and was the CNN correspondent "on site" . . . it was Tom Mintier who was the CNN correspondent on air at the time this horrific tragedy occurred. He was the only correspondent according to an archived bio excerpt: "Mintier also has covered more than 25 space missions for CNN, and was the only network television journalist in the world reporting live as the 1986 space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing the seven astronauts aboard."

    I was asleep at the time, having worked all night before coming home, turning on the TV, and nodding off. It was the sound of Mr. Mintier's voice that awakened me to this terrible news. I realize he no longer works for CNN . . . which is one of the reasons I seldom watch any more . . . but did anyone in Atlanta even think to contact him on this anniversary, as has been done in the past?!?

    January 29, 2011 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. TributeSong

    Watch the moving new 25th anniversary tribute song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK0QE68_Dds

    January 29, 2011 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
  6. TributeSong

    Watch the moving new 25th anniversary tribute song: youtube.com/watch?v=nK0QE68_Dds

    January 29, 2011 at 3:21 am | Report abuse |
  7. fred


    January 29, 2011 at 3:22 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ravensun

    In my life, there are four dates that are forever etched in my memory.

    * September 11, 2001
    * January 28, 1986
    * December 8, 1980
    * August 16, 1977

    Who else remembers these dates?

    January 29, 2011 at 6:38 am | Report abuse |
  9. Ann

    I was working at a small-town paper and was picking up stats in the courthouse. Someone told me the shuttle blew up so I ran back to the office. In the newsroom, everyone stood around the computer monitor that showed the AP feed and the story came over the wire one sentence at a time. Had to remake the front page. Seemed like the song "Kyrie Eleison" was popular at the time and very fitting.

    January 29, 2011 at 7:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. EMH1971

    My Freshman year of HS, and I was in US History, and just like every other class, we were watching the shuttle launch. Such a tragic day, and one that I'll never forget. I am surprised its been 25 years already. Their sacrifice is not forgotten. God Bless the Human Race.

    January 29, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
  11. lowerlight

    yeah, I realized something was wrong, too, as soon as the thing blew up.

    January 31, 2011 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
  12. Stephen Sloan

    I have two vivid recollections from this launch. When the shuttle rolled into it's position for separation from the lift rockets and the long range camera focused in, I saw this small flicker of a flame on the side of the booster tanks, said to myself, "that's not right", followed by the shuttle explosion. Open mouthed, I stared at the TV screen. I knew what had happened.

    As the camera pulled back and the view expanded I saw, pieces, falling back down to wherever they would land. I said one last thing, "those are body parts", turned off the TV and walked away.

    Lost in this, 'celebration', is, the breakup of the shuttle Columbia during re-entry, 2/1/2003. That flight path took cut diagonally across Texas on a path that took it over Dallas. I had moved to Plano, TX in July, 2002. I witnessed the breakup, at least what I could see of it, standing on my balcony and looking overhead as that larger than normal vapor trail separated into Challenger like smoke plums arching down and away from the main trail. In my head I heard those words again, "that's not right".

    February 2, 2011 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  13. Cheap Viceroy online

    Well, that is certainly excellent, however how about the other options we've got here? Would you mind making another article regarding these also? Cheers!

    August 8, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
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