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.
Phil Johnson, who left KIRO after 32 years in 2006 and is now retired, was also paying close attention to the launch, because the “Teacher in Space” program hit close to home. His wife at the time, like Christa McAuliffe, was a 30-something high school social studies teacher.
While the liftoff looked routine to Johnson, Chelminiak immediately sensed something amiss. As the engines ignited, Chelminiak says, “there was sort of this puff of smoke that occurred, and I just remember saying at the time ‘that just didn’t look right.’ ”
Johnson confirms that Chelminiak spotted something the moment the Challenger’s engines fired. “He said ‘there’s something wrong,’ ” Johnson says.
Meanwhile, the shuttle continued to climb. About a minute after liftoff, Christopher Glenn signed off the CBS network coverage and Van Cise switched on his microphone, telling listeners that KIRO would provide updates on the mission throughout the day and would continue to follow McAuliffe’s progress as America’s first “Teacher in Space.”
It was just seconds later, Van Cise says, that “all of a sudden the editor Dan Leach came running through the studio doors with a panicked look on his face and pointing to the TV monitors . . . and we saw the explosion had just occurred, and so we immediately switched back to CBS coverage.”
It was clear from the TV monitor and from the “Tote Board,” a device at the editor’s desk with a twin in the booth that alerted network stations to breaking news from CBS with a series of flashing lights, that something had gone terribly wrong.
Apart from occasional station identification announcements and other brief interruptions, KIRO stayed with CBS coverage for most of the morning. Later, KIRO reporters collected reactions from local people (called “MOS” for “Man on the Street” in those days, now more often called the politically correct “POS” for "Person on the Street”) and reactions from school teachers and students (many of whom had watched the launch live on special NASA equipment installed in schools that McAuliffe would have used to teach from space). Shuttle commander Dick Scobee, an Auburn High graduate who was born in Cle Elum and who died aboard the Challenger, was also part of KIRO’s local angle.
Van Cise says that radio played a different role in 1986 than it does nowadays, when ubiquitous web access and Smartphones give nearly everyone access to text and video from anywhere. “You’ve got to remember that (the Challenger disaster) happened after most people were at school or at work. We didn’t have as many TVs in every room, or car, or telephone. Radio at that time, even though (the Challenger) was a visual story, with the right people telling it, it put you right there,” Van Cise says.
Van Cise was wooed by CBS flagship station WCBS in the early 1990s and as part of a visit to New York City dropped in at CBS Radio headquarters in midtown Manhattan. There he got a chance to sit down and chat with his hero Christopher Glenn and talk about the Challenger coverage. The veteran newsman told Van Cise that broadcasting the Challenger story live, “was just a remarkable experience to be part of.”
Glenn was one of the last living links to the glory days of CBS News and, in particular, the CBS Radio Network, hosting long-running radio news programs such as The World News Round Up and The World Tonight (as well as the Saturday morning TV feature for kids called In The News). He passed away in 2006.
In addition to the radio coverage carried locally by KIRO, network TV and local affiliates also interrupted regular programming to cover the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and it’s the memories of this coverage (and a little help from YouTube) that provide the lasting sense of what it felt like to witness it all from afar.
In the TV coverage of the Challenger tragedy, there was no defining moment like the teary Walter Cronkite announcing the death of JFK or the angry Frank Reynolds admonishing his colleagues to get it right about the survival of press secretary James Brady during an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. It was just Dan Rather at CBS and his counterparts at ABC and NBC lining up the correspondents and requisite experts and playing the key moments of video — as if shot by some stratospheric Zapruder — over and over again, along with careful speculation about What Might Have Gone Wrong amidst scenes of devastated relatives of the crew on the reviewing stand.
Rather did, at one point around midday, mistakenly refer to President Reagan as “President Nixon,” which got a chuckle out of the crowd I was with in the student center at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland. Reagan cancelled his State of the Union speech that evening, and instead made some of the most memorable remarks of his presidency from the Oval Office.
And it’s thanks to video that the big picture details are still so clear 25 years later. The confident, smiling astronauts in their matching jumpsuits, up early and transported out to the launch pad. The orbiter, solid rocket boosters and external tank, beautifully though portentously encrusted with ice in the rare south Florida deep freeze on a Tuesday in late January.
But the mission never gets past the 73-second mark without a “major malfunction,” no matter how many times the video replays, no matter how hard we silently will it to all turn out so differently. Each and every time we watch, the damn thing just disintegrates.