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Back-yard cameras record tragedy

A Texas doctor and his wife wanted to watch the shuttle fly over their yard. They end up documenting the disaster.

©Associated Press

February 2, 2003

TYLER, Texas -- A cardiologist who went into his back yard with cameras and binoculars to watch the space shuttle Columbia descend over Texas ended up capturing it on film as it broke into pieces.

Dr. Scott Lieberman took vivid photographs as Columbia broke up 16 minutes before its scheduled landing Saturday. The photographs were distributed worldwide by the Associated Press.

His love of space travel and photography brought him to his back yard with a still camera, video camera and binoculars. Lieberman had been tracking the shuttle on NASA's Web site and was excited that the landing route was supposed to go over Tyler.

"I handed the video camera to my wife Robyn, and I had a digital (camera)," Lieberman said. "I had a zoom lens on it. I started clicking some pictures as it came over."

He noticed that the space shuttle had unusual parallel contrails, but he thought that perhaps landings look different in the daylight and didn't immediately realize anything was wrong.

"On the videotape you could hear my wife say, 'Is it supposed to split up like that?' " he said.

Lieberman said he realized the shuttle had a problem when he didn't hear a sonic boom.

"The sonic boom is two discreet thumps -- boom boom -- that's normal. What happened here was a loud roaring explosion like a cannon going off. It shook the house and was much louder than normal. It was a very loud coarse noise.

"That was followed by a crinkling sound, a burning noise -- like when your heater's on in the house -- that persisted for a minute or two minutes," he said.

One of the images he caught on his camera showed "25 or 30 different fragments moving through the air," he said. "When I saw that, I realized it was the massive disruption of the vehicle."

With the help of the Tyler Courier Times Telegraph, the images were distributed worldwide through the AP.

Lieberman, a New York native, said if he weren't practicing medicine, he would want to work in the space program.

"I'm one of those 40-year-olds who grew up watching the moon landings. It's one of those things I always wanted to do. It strikes close to home," he said.

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