Hawai’i awakens to news of shuttle tragedy

HONOLULU (AP) – Hawai’i awoke to news of tragedy Saturday, as word of disaster aboard the space shuttle Columbia crept across the Pacific.

Most of the state was still fast asleep when NASA lost contact with the shuttle one minute before 4 a.m. NASA declared an emergency a half hour later.

By the time most of Hawai’i’s residents arose, the flag at Kennedy Space Center had already been lowered to half-staff and it was evident the day had taken on new meaning: Columbia had broken apart in flames over Texas and its seven astronauts were all killed.

Flags at the Capitol and other state buildings sank to half-staff in tribute to the Columbia crew. At Hawai’i’s military posts and naval stations, flags were lowered per presidential order. A moment of silence was held before the Hula Bowl on Maui.

“This tragedy illustrates how fragile our lives are and we wish we could acknowledge that fact on a daily basis,” Gov. Linda Lingle said in a statement. “The hearts of the people of Hawai’i go out to families of the crew.”

“These men and women were an inspiration to all Americans and to those from other countries who were represented,” Lingle said.

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris said, “The people of Honolulu are enormously saddened at the loss of Columbia’s crew.”

“The American spirit finds eternal life in the relentless efforts of those who seek to extend the boundaries of knowledge for the good of humanity,” Harris said. “We can honor these seven brave astronauts by ensuring that our voyage of discovery continues.”

Saturday’s tragedy made many Hawai’i residents think back to a similar day almost exactly 17 years earlier.

The space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986, also claiming all seven astronauts aboard.

Among them was Ellison Onizuka, a Hawai’i native who is now buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

“It kind of reopened the wound again,” Claude Onizuka, the fallen astronaut’s brother, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Kona.

Onizuka’s sister, who lives in Atlanta, called him with the news at 4:30 Saturday morning.

“It’s never going to be a 100 percent safe program,” Claude Onizuka said. “There’s always dangers.”

Claude Onizuka visited the Kona museum named in his brother’s memory on Saturday. The Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport at Keahole set up a small memorial with a Columbia crew photo and flowers.

About 45 people had stopped at the museum by mid-afternoon, about double the usual Saturday crowd, said Nancy Tashima, the center’s curator.

On Guam – where Columbia pilot William McCool once lived – it was already Sunday as news of the tragedy slowly spread across an island still recovering from Supertyphoon Pongsona. A Pacific Daily News headline blared “Shuttle Explodes,” but two months after Pongsona, much of Guam was still without cable television and its blanket coverage of the disaster.

McCool brought a Guam flag with him on the 16-day mission. It was unknown whether his wife, Aitlana McCool, a Guamanian, was awaiting his return at Kennedy Space Center. “It’s just very sad,” Guam’s former congressional delegate Robert Underwood said in Washington.

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