Friends, neighbors, students mourn lost teacher Christa McAuliffe


CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 28, 1986 (UPI) - Six months after lining Main Street to salute Christa McAuliffe as the first schoolteacher selected to go to outer space, her neighbors knelt in St. Peter's Church Tuesday night and prayed for the ill-fated pioneer.

''While we grieve, we must also be happy for what she tried to do,'' the Rev. Chester Mirowka told 125 mourners just eight hours after McAuliffe and six other astronauts were killed in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.


At Concord High School, where McAuliffe taught social studies since 1982, students first cheered when the spacecraft took off, then quickly found themselves in tears and trembling when the Challenger suddenly burst into a ball of flames.

''I didn't believe it happened,'' said Mark Letalien, a junior who with his classmates watched the conflagration on television. ''They made such a big thing about it. Everyone's watching her and she gets killed.''


''We're all shaking. It's just so upsetting,'' said Lennie Barnes, also a junior at the school.

In July, about 2,500 people lined Main Street and gave McAuliffe a jubilant parade after she was selected from more than 1,110 applicants to be the first schoolteacher and ''ordinary citizen'' to go to outer space.

On Tuesday, the 1,200 students and 140 faculty members at the red-brick schoolhouse had expected another joyous day as McAuliffe, 37, was to make history.

Instead, the students were sent home about 1 p.m. EST, filing out with their heads bowed, wiping tears from their eyes.

Principal Charles Foley, choking back tears, canceled classes for Wednesday, saying the crash had ''destroyed anyone's ability to learn.''

The city's wide Main Street, which had been filled with thousands during a homecoming parade for McAuliffe, was empty as residents sat before televisions to watch updates on the crash.

''She's dead,'' said Colleen Murray, who stood with tears streaming down her cheeks. ''She followed her dream and she died. It's just unfair.''

School faculty and staff planned to meet with counselors Wednesday to discuss the tragedy and how to deal with students who watched their teacher's fiery death.

Psychologist Norman Shulman said the ''impact of this kind of tragedy'' was compounded by the intense media attention ''and the fact that there were special relationships between her and the student body.''


''Time is one of the factors that will aid in the healing,'' he said.

Later, in the parking lot, students stood in freezing cold listening to grim reports from a radio in a pickup truck, shaking their heads in disbelief.

''It's been a rough year. Give us time,'' said one teacher who asked not to be identified. She referred to a student who was fatally shot by police after taking a hostage at the high school in November.

Students, many with party hats and noisemakers, had loudly cheered the liftoff as they watched televisions in classrooms, the cafeteria and an auditorium. A banner was unfurled, reading, ''We're With U Christa.''

When the shuttle exploded during its climb toward orbit and veered out of control, there was dead silence followed quickly by tears, many of them angry tears. Teachers quickly ushered students back to classes.

Foley ordered news reporters and photographers out of the school.

''We were rejoicing in the liftoff ... celebrating with her,'' Foley told reporters. ''Then it stopped. That's all. It just stopped.''

Foley called McAuliffe a ''tremendous human being. There was always something going on with Christa. She was an exciting person.''

The day had begun in a festive mood as students arrived to cheer on the popular teacher, who had been selected last summer as NASA's first teacher in space and first civilian to orbit the Earth.


On the streets of Concord, people gathered in front of television sets in Main Street storefronts and watched replays of the explosion in silent horror. At the Statehouse, word of the launch quickly spread through the halls.

''We've crossed our fingers and we're praying,'' said Gov. John Sununu, who had been in Florida but returned to New Hampshire after the liftoff was delayed on Monday. He instead watched the blastoff in the Statehouse.

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