Grief jars soul of Florida town
By Deborah Sharp
TITUSVILLE, Fla. In the town the space program built, Beth Bell sat before a group of cross-legged kids yesterday and put tragedy into terms even a toddler could understand.
The sunrise yesterday in Titusville, Fla., illuminated a memorial left for Columbia's crew.
Grief over the loss of Columbia may be more intensely felt in Titusville than anywhere else in the world. Here, the space program's roots run a half-century deep. Welcome signs along U.S. 1 boast of "Space City, U.S.A." The city flag shows a rocket rising into space. Residents lobbied to get a special area code that reflects the launch countdown familiar to so many: 321.
The economy is more diverse now than in the space program's earliest days, when Titusville was essentially a NASA company town. But 30 percent of the city's 42,000 residents still have direct links to the sprawling Kennedy Space Center, just across the Indian River at Cape Canaveral.
"We have such emotional, as well as economic, ties," says Ron Swank, the city's part-time mayor. His full-time job is at the Space Center.
"Right now, Titusville is mourning for the astronauts and their families."
From the red roses and American flags at the Astronaut Memorial to the signs outside businesses offering prayers for the dead, the symbols of loss are clear.
As Bell spoke with the preschoolers outside the Indian River City United Methodist Church, the Rev. Jim Kovatos spoke inside about sharing burdens and grief. No one should feel guilty, he said, if the "dull thud of grief" is tinged with personal fear about the space program's future and its effect on theregion's jobs and economy.
"What will happen to my job? To my family? To my town?" the pastor said.
Conni Barnhart, whose father worked for 37 years at the Space Center, listened and cried. "It's not just me," she said, gathering a pile of tear-soaked tissues from the pew beside her. "We all feel this way."
Mixed with the anguish over Columbia here are memories of the space shuttle Challenger, which blew up shortly after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center 17 years ago. The area took a dramatic economic hit after the Challenger disaster. There was a two-year halt on launches. The Space Center lost some 2,200 jobs.
This time, residents were heartened to hear President Bush say Saturday that the space program will go on.
When it comes to shaping the area's image, the role of space exploration looms larger here than in metropolitan Houston. There was little else here but Sabal palm trees and shoreline when John Glenn made manned orbit history from this sliver of Florida's coast in 1962.
Since then, the region has built its culture around the "Space Coast" nickname. Titusville residents live on Apollo and Moon roads. Tourists stay at the Space Shuttle Inn. The space program employs about 15,000 people in the region. Its annual impact on the economy, ranging from manufacturing to real estate, is estimated at $1.36 billion.
Locals are used to the sights and sounds of launches and landings. Because of that, many knew instinctively Saturday that something was horribly wrong. The shuttle was expected to land at 9:16 a.m. As always, Bob Pound, a retired Space Center employee, was in his yard with binoculars.
"After you hear, 'BOOM, BOOM,' you know where to look," Pound said, referring to the sonic booms that accompany the craft. "At 9:15, I got chills and a sinking feeling.
"We didn't hear anything."