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Anniversary brings back first-hand memories of Challenger explosion

Anniversary brings back first-hand memories of Challenger explosion
Louise and George Shaneybrook hold a photo that George, an amatuer photographer, shot as the space shuttrle Challenger exploded after liftoff at Cape Canaveral 30 years ao. The couple were on vacation at the time. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

During major events in history, "everybody remembers where they were," says Lutherville resident George Shaneybrook, 83.

For example, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Shaneybrook was listening to the news in his car radio while hunting bear in Snowshoe, Pa.

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It was so cold that his mustache froze, "and I didn't get the bear," he said.

He once saw a total solar eclipse while vacationing in Aruba, although he and his wife, Louise, can't remember the year.

"You kind of forget some things," he said.

Another example has more immediacy and poignancy today — the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, in which a crew of seven astronauts was killed, including payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe, known as Christa, a former teacher in Prince George's County, who was selected from among 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space.

The Shaneybrooks were watching at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 28, 1986, as the Challenger lifted off to big applause from a large crowd in the grandstands, many of them children there to cheer McAuliffe, then an American history and English teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire, who had previously taught history and civics at Thomas Johnson Middle School, in Lanham, Md.

At the middle school that fateful day, a large banner was hung, saying, "Good luck, Christa."

Also killed in the explosion were payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, mission commander Francis (Dick) Scobee, pilot Mike Smith and mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka.

Shaneybrook wrote the launch date on the cover of a commemorative magazine, "A Tribute to America's Space Heroes," that he bought as a souvenir in the gift shop, along with a snap-together model of the Challenger that still sits in its original box, never assembled.

Seventy three seconds after liftoff, the shuttle blew up in the sky, eliciting dead silence from the crowd.

"That shut everybody up," Shaneybrook recalled, sitting at his kitchen table on Broadway Road, in Lutherville. "You could hear a pin drop."

Children began to sob as officials announced "a major malfunction," later determined to be the failure of a rubber O-ring in a rocket booster at liftoff. They closed all roads around the launch site, stranding the crowd for several hours.

"It was scary," Louise Shaneybrook said. "Everybody thought it was going to go smoothly — and it didn't."

The day was supposed to be a happy one for George Shaneybrook, a landscaper, and his wife, a stay-at-home mother of five, who did the books for her husband's business. They were on vacation in Daytona Beach, headed for the Florida Keys, when they heard about the upcoming launch and drove 75 miles in unseasonably cold weather to Cape Canaveral.

"We said, 'Hell, we have nothing else to do,' " George Shaneybrook remembers.

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When they got there, "Everyone was jolly," he said. As the shuttle lifted off, officials delivered constant updates on its altitude and speed.

"It was getting up some speed," Shaneybrook said. The amateur photographer took pictures of the Challenger as it rose — and then as it exploded, a photo that is framed on a wall in his home.

"Everyone was so sad," he said. In an instant, joy had turned to sorrow.

"You snapped your fingers and it was over," Shaneybrook said. As a witness to history, "Nothing could be as personal as that."

He and his wife went on to the Keys, but the incident cast a pall over their vacation.

"It kind of ruined it," he said. "I'd try to go to bed at night, but it was a hard thing not to think about."

Their son, Fred, now 51 and a mortgage banker, who lives next door to his parents, was a junior majoring in business at the University of Maryland in College Park when the accident happened.

"I just remember it was on TV," he said. "Everybody was sitting there and it was kind of sad."

He knew at the time that his parents were in Florida, but doesn't think he knew then that they had gone to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch.

Three decades later, it's all part of history for the Shaneybrooks, who sat at their kitchen table on the eve of the anniversary, with the commemorative magazine and model in front of them, along with a commemorative emblem and copies of the Miami Herald and the Baltimore Evening Sun, their front pages filled with news of the tragedy.

"I just dug them out the other day," George Shaneybrook said.

Now long retired and indulging his hobbies of gardening and woodworking, Shaneybrook doesn't dwell on the painful memories of that long-ago day. But he knows the media will be publicizing the anniversary and said he is interested to see some of the coverage and refresh his memory on some of the details.

He can't quite explain his continuing fascination with such a morbid moment in history.

"I don't know why," he said. "But I do want to see it. I guess it reminds me of something sad."

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