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    Shuttle Disaster

    Memories, capsule honor crew of shuttle

    At a Largo memorial service for the Columbia astronauts, personal histories bring a national tragedy into focus.

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 9, 2003


    LARGO -- There was no casket and few people, but the first funeral service of the day was somehow personal, even for the preacher.

    It somehow mattered that someone hold a memorial for the Columbia astronauts, even if no one asked for it, even if no one came.

    So at the Moss-Feaster Serenity Gardens Chapel there was an extra service Saturday, before the more local sorrows of remembering Fritz Reiter and Hamden Baskin Jr. They did it for the staff, and whoever else wanted to come.

    "We needed to do something," said Moss-Feaster area manager Andrea Eheman.

    It was just a handful of people scattered in mostly empty pews. Largo Mayor Bob Jackson read a proclamation, and two city commissioners sat near the front.

    Warren Willets and his wife Dorothy sat on the left side, a few rows back. A night dispatcher at the funeral home, Willets drove a hearse for the Challenger disaster in 1986. Every time the shuttle launches he runs outside and looks for the white streak in the sky. Sometimes when it lands, the sonic boom scares him out of bed. But this time, for some reason, he missed the launch of Columbia. And then, like everyone else, he missed the landing.

    Someone called and told him to put on the news, and suddenly he was back in 1986 at the wheel of the hearse.

    "It brought it all back," he said. "It sure did."

    Father Bob Wagenseil had typed his formal remarks, but when his turn came to speak, he left the podium and just talked. His father was an engineer who worked on the space shuttle's wing design. He can remember his father bringing home pieces of tile. It made him proud.

    When he was 8, his family stopped at an inn in Virginia where Alan Shepard was due for lunch. Shepard didn't show. A group of guys asked what he was pouting about, and he told them he wanted to meet the famous astronaut. They signed the back of a waitress' check -- all six of the other Mercury 7 astronauts.

    "If you grew up in the '60s, what happened last week resonates," Wagenseil said.

    His father is in a nursing home now, unaware of the Columbia disaster or the focus on the left wing. But Wagenseil wore a tie clip his father gave him 30 years ago. It's a small gold etching of his father's work: a shuttle wing, the left one.

    At the service someone read a prayer, then they read the names slowly -- Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, William McCool and Ilan Ramon. They lit candles and showed a video of the crew before the launch and inside the shuttle.

    Then they filled a time capsule with mementos -- the proclamation, candles, the day's newspaper, the video, some business cards and personal notes.

    They will bury the time capsule outside by the flag pole, next to a similar memorial from Sept. 11, 2001.

    "Being in this business we didn't think we'd have national memorials," Eheman said. But now they have two.

    -- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or benham@sptimes.com .

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