Millions of people flipped on the TV to watch another American tragedy unfolding before their eyes Saturday.
Among them were countless kids just looking for Saturday morning cartoons. Instead of seeing Wild Thornberrys or Dora the Explorer, a new generation learned that America's technical superiority in space exploration is not perfect, a lesson school-aged children learned 17 years ago with the Challenger explosion.
In an age when space flights have become almost routine (again), as President George W. Bush told the nation Saturday, America's youngest viewers saw a painful reminder that they can't overlook the dangers of travel by rocket.
Kids quickly knew something was horribly wrong when news coverage, without commercial interruptions, about the shuttle Columbia consumed many channels into late in the afternoon.
Nobody could miss the constant replays of the video showing pieces falling off the tiny white image, and the multiple smoke plumes that looked like fireworks in the blue sky.
Children knew it was serious when their parents joined them. Again families huddled around the TV seeking the latest information, as we did after the World Trade Center attacks, the 1986 Challenger explosion, all the way back to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
As with 9-11, TV pictures arrived almost instantly, well before the words to explain precisely what had happened at 9 a.m. over north-central Texas. TV anchors again did their best to deliver the latest sketchy information calmly, mostly stressing that a terrorist missile could not bring down a spacecraft 39 miles above the Earth.
"We emphasize again that there's no evidence of terrorism whatsoever. It was 40 miles in the air," said ABC's Bill Blakemore, who somewhat unsteadily anchored for three hours until Peter Jennings finally took over.
Kids probably didn't notice that warhorse Dan Rather was the first of the major anchors to step into the picture Saturday. He replaced former Miss America (and former Channel 9 news anchor) Gretchen Carlson from CBS' Saturday Early Show by 10:30 a.m., about 90 minutes after the explosion.
Rather co-anchored with Saturday Early Show co-anchor Russ Jackson. Maybe even adult viewers didn't realize they could be watching a passing of the guard at CBS, for Jackson proved he's very capable anchoring the Big Story.
Young viewers probably didn't know enough about geography to realize that the morning MSNBC anchorwoman repeatedly mispronounced Nacogdoches, the Texas town where much debris fell. She called it "Naga-dishes."
And it likely didn't cross their minds how ridiculous it was when ABC's Blakemore went to live updates on the story from Lynn Sherr in San Francisco, 1,800 miles away from the wreckage, while the other networks spoke to Texas eyewitnesses.
Those who grazed through the channels searching for any shreds of credible information - not unlike the federal, state and local authorities combing east Texas for debris - often found some of the best details on CBS.
Louisiana TV meteorologist Rob Perillo used weather radar video to describe the shuttle's potential debris field to Rather. And CBS space consultant Bill Harwood first told viewers at 1:15 p.m., more than two hours before the first official NASA statement, that space program administrators were looking at malfunctions on the left wing area.
Maybe even adults didn't realize the significance when the first pictures of debris appeared on TV. It wasn't on CBS, or ABC, or NBC, or CNN. No, the first photo was shown by Fox News, which a year ago passed CNN as the cable's most popular all-news channel.
At 12:10 p.m., slightly more than three hours after the tragedy, Fox News (simulcast here by Channel 19) showed a still photograph of debris in a parking lot from the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel Web site. Ten minutes later, Fox News had helicopter video of debris, another first.
And it's safe to say that only TV critics - and golf fans - noted that CBS and WKRC-TV, the Tristate's top-rated news station, were the first to drop continuous coverage by 4 p.m.
CBS, which doesn't have a sister all-news cable channel like Fox and NBC, broke away from NASA's first news conference from Mission Control in Houston to air the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament.
For viewers of all ages on Saturday, television did what it can do best - delivering information during disasters, allowing us to grieve collectively for those who lost their lives in service to this great nation.
We'll retain the images the rest of our lives, as we have for other triumphs and tragedies - from the World Trade Center collapse to World Series victories, from man walking on the moon to police officers marking off fragments from the Columbia with yellow caution tape.
On Saturday, we witnessed another defining moment for a new generation. Those of us old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination lived through an era when the U.S. space program was nearly invincible.
That's not the same for my kids, who have seen two space shuttles disintegrate on television.
I remember my feeling of pride when the shuttle program resumed with the launch of Discovery on Sept. 29, 1988, about 2‡ years after the Challenger disaster.
When I came home from work that day, I asked my son, then a 5-year-old kindergartener, if he had seen TV pictures of the launch.
"Yes, Daddy," Jay told me. "And it didn't blow up."
Now another generation of kids will have that same reaction to space launches. And I long for the day when the dangers of travel by rocket will be routine again.
(Complete Columbia coverage at Cincinnati.com)
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