When Rick Van Cise was tapped to fill in on the morning shift at KIRO Newsradio 71 in January 1986, he had no idea he’d be witnessing history and sharing it with tens of thousands of people.
Van Cise, then just 28 years old, could remember years before when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, how the shockwaves had resonated through his kindergarten classroom. And he could picture the twisted vapor trails and debris clouds from the aborted missiles he used to occasionally witness from his backyard, growing up at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the early 1960s.
That these two memories would be fused into some new tragedy when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed came as an unpleasant surprise to Van Cise.
In the mid 1980s, KIRO 710 AM was the dominant radio station in the region, consistently coming in first place in the ratings and serving as the go-to place for news, traffic and weather during the morning and afternoon rush hours.
Van Cise, who until recently worked as a meteorologist for KIRO TV (and whose daughter Lisa Van Cise is a meteorologist for Northwest Cable News), came to work at KIRO in 1981, and was filling big shoes that January day in 1986: the comfortable loafers of regular morning host Bill Yeend, whose familiar tenor was a fixture on KIRO for decades (and who now hosts mornings on KOMO Newsradio). In the mid-1980s, Yeend was usually paired with news anchor Dave Stone, but on the day of the Challenger launch, both were on vacation and Van Cise was covering host duties along with KIRO Newsradio veteran Phil Johnson as news anchor.
By early 1986, the Space Shuttle program was nearing its fifth anniversary, and liftoffs had become “routine,” which had been NASA’s stated goal all along. The Challenger launch was to be the 25th shuttle mission, but this one had received far more attention than other recent launches (including when the Challenger had been in space — incredibly, given the more recent pace of the shuttle program — less than three months earlier in November 1985). Chief reason for the renewed interest was the presence of Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year old civilian from New Hampshire who was to be America’s first “Teacher In Space.”
Van Cise says that interest in McAuliffe was the reason that KIRO switched out of its typical local news and commercials just before 8:40 am Pacific Time and switched over to CBS Radio Network coverage, anchored by legendary CBS newsman — and a hero to Van Cise — Christopher Glenn.
To make the switch to the feed from CBS, Van Cise punched a button and moved a sliding knob on the control board in the KIRO Newsradio studios — referred to as “the booth” — which were then located at Third Avenue and Broad (where KIRO TV is still located — KIRO Radio and KIRO TV split to different ownership in the mid-1990s, and KIRO Radio moved to Eastlake Avenue). The impending shuttle launch had been the subject of several reports that morning, including a news poem by Charles Osgood, so Van Cise didn’t have to explain much to KIRO listeners before switching over to CBS coverage in time to catch the last few seconds of the countdown.
Just beyond the studio door and a wall of double-pane soundproof windows was the KIRO Newsradio newsroom, where Dan Leach (who nowadays works for Microsoft) was sitting at the editor’s desk, and where TV monitors were visible on the far wall.
Along with Van Cise, Johnson and Leach at KIRO as the shuttle shot skyward that morning was reporter John Chelminiak, watching the launch on CNN and listening to the CBS audio through newsroom speakers that monitored the radio station’s broadcast signal.
Chelminiak, now a Bellevue City Councilman (who last year famously survived a bear attack), had been paying close attention to the space program for as long as he could remember. “My dad would wake me up at 5 in the morning to watch the launches back in the Mercury days, so it was something that I’ve just always been interested in through my entire life,” Chelminiak says.
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