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Columbia

For Space Coast, loss hits home

By THOMAS C. TOBIN and ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2003


TITUSVILLE -- In the cramped office at United Christian Fellowship Church, the Rev. James Warren had yet to form the words his congregation had come to hear.

They already were assembled Sunday morning in the small church near downtown Titusville. Warren was due at the pulpit in minutes, but what to say?

Like many of those gathered in the pews, Warren is an employee of the Kennedy Space Center. He had arrived for work at the space center's avionics lab at 5 a.m. Saturday and gotten a call shortly after 9 a.m.

He remembered blurting, "What do you mean they lost contact?"

And now his other job compelled him to sermonize: the afflicted comforting the afflicted.

Florida's Space Coast mourned Columbia in thousands of reflective moments Sunday, from churches like Warren's to the flower-laden Astronaut Memorial at the space center to the waterfront monument with bronzed handprints of famous astronauts miles away in downtown Titusville.

At United Christian Fellowship Church, Warren began by urging people to put aside concerns about the space program's future and pray for the families of Columbia's seven astronauts.

"We are in a season of sadness," Warren began. "Right now for the moment our biggest concern, Lord God, is there's some little girl or some little boy whose daddy is not coming home tonight." He prayed the families would throw themselves headlong into grieving. "If you need to cry and get it out, get it out." Jolynn McClary, 45, a state government secretary, went to Veterans Memorial Park and the U.S. Space Walk of Fame to contemplate the disaster. "There was a beautiful sunrise this morning," McClary said as she brushed her gloved hands over the bronzed palm prints of former astronauts such as John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.

"I thought even though the sun's coming up it's just kind of sad."

At St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, the Rev. Richard Pobjecky held forth in a packed historic chapel with dark wood beams and an old, creaky wooden floor. "All of us are dumbfounded," he told the congregation. "Some people are feeling guilty: 'Is there something I might have done or not have done.' "

But he said there was hope in the "holy spirit coming in the form of a dove." He added: "And the word 'dove' in Latin, the language of the Romans in the time of Jesus, is what? Columbia. The holy spirit in the form of a dove named Columbia."

At Temple Beth Sholom, about 200 congregants gathered where 10 months ago Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had promised to return to share stories about his first space flight. The memorial service began at 9:16 a.m., exactly 24 hours after the crew was scheduled to return to Cape Canaveral, about 10 miles north of the synagogue.

"It is an unusual, unexpected sadness that brings us here," said Rabbi Richard Margolis.

At the space center's visitor's complex, dozens of people gathered at a memorial to astronauts when the doors opened at 9 a.m. Sunday. By late afternoon, thousands more had made the trip, lining up to sign a book of condolences. Many cried silently as they stared at the huge black wall where names of astronauts who died in space missions are etched in stone.

Kelley Miller, 28, got up at 5 a.m. Sunday to make the trip from Fort Lauderdale. A space enthusiast who works for Office Depot, she has visited the memorial a half-dozen times, and last saw a shuttle launch in October.

On Sunday, she left a single flower at the fence and took photographs of the display. "I love the space program," she said. "I always wanted to be an astronaut."

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