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    Bay area reprises sad memories

    Shoppers paused in aisles and paradegoers observed silence as word spread of a still too-familiar tragedy.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 2, 2003

    A somber blanket spread over Tampa Bay on Saturday, as news of Columbia's disintegration turned the community's week of revelry into a day of reverence.

    By Saturday afternoon, both the American and Tampa Bay Buccaneers flags were flying half-staff at a South Tampa BP station.

    People fueling up kept their car doors open as they filled their tanks, listening for news updates from their radios. In the electronics departments of bay area department stores, customers gathered around televisions tuned to all-news networks.

    "I was here when the Challenger went up, and it just seems awful that this is happening again," said Steve Marshall, 46, who was driving from St. Pete Beach to Tampa for Gasparilla festivities when he heard the news on the radio and ducked into the Best Buy in St. Petersburg to watch television. "Especially with everything the president is going through with Iraq."

    Seventeen years ago this week, Tampa Bay residents could spot the white plumes from the explosion of Challenger after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. Saturday at St. Petersburg's Flamingo Bar, Debra Johnston watched the television coverage and had a familiar feeling.

    "I saw the other one when it blew up. I was watching that one," said Ms. Johnston, who was tending bar for one customer at 10:30 a.m. "It looks the same as it did then. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable."

    In Tampa, the thousands lined up along Bayshore Boulevard for the Gasparilla celebration reached for their cell phones. Radios were located, then tuned to the coverage. Mayor Dick Greco announced that the parade, which drew hundreds of thousands, would go on as planned, but floats would stop every 30 minutes for a moment of silence.

    Early Saturday, shuttle buffs on the west coast of Florida waited for the sonic boom that occurs when the supersonic spacecraft heads for Cape Canaveral, but it never came.

    "I was waiting to hear it. I knew something was wrong," said William Vigotty, 36, of St. Petersburg, who was watching NASA's Web broadcast Saturday as the shuttle descended.

    In a bank parking lot in Largo, police officers commemorating the cooperation between law enforcement agencies bowed their heads in prayer Saturday morning as, in Houston, the American flag beside the shuttle countdown clock was lowered to half-staff.

    Cassie Hawkins, 23, student government president at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, was running the Campus Activities Center front desk when a friend ran in to tell her the news.

    Her first reaction: disbelief. She remembered sitting in an elementary school classroom, watching the liftoff of the Challenger end in an explosion just 73 seconds later.

    "NASA had such a good record for so long a time that it didn't seem like it was possible for this to happen again," said Hawkins, a political science major. "You don't usually associate death with science, but I guess it happens as you explore the boundaries."

    In Pasco County, Gwen Dalton wheeled her shopping cart toward the back of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Saturday and moved her eyes over rows of television screens, searching for information about the space shuttle.

    Seeing only movie previews, Dalton and other shoppers asked employees to turn the television to a news broadcast. But the sets are programed, so shoppers were left standing in groups, exchanging information among themselves.

    "Oh, my God," said Dalton, 38, of New Port Richey. "It's horrible. It's unbelievable."

    Butch Enyard, 55, was attending a union meeting in Crystal River when one of the members' pagers went off with the news of the tragedy. Remembering the previous Challenger explosion, everyone immediately looked into the sky, Enyard said.

    But, of course, unlike in 1986, there was nothing to see Saturday morning.

    "It's just unbelievable," he said. "I still don't know what to think."

    -- Times staff writers Curtis Krueger, Ron Matus, Jamie Jones, Carrie Johnson, Jennifer Liberto and Tom Scherberger, and researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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