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Sunday, February 02, 2003

Shuttle Memorials in Southland

LOS ANGELES — Clouds of grief blanketed an otherwise sunny Southland today as residents remembered the seven astronauts of the Columbia and their shocking demise amid flags at half-mast and sad-eyed memorial services.

Columbia streaked and burst into a tumbling roar as it passed over Texas just after 6 a.m. yesterday. The incandescent explosion, watched by millions on national television, killed all seven astronauts and scattered debris, human remains and huge pieces of spacecraft across three states.

At a time already disquieted by war and economic doldrums, it plunged most Americans into a deep and profound pondering over the meaning and cause of this national tragedy.

President Bush, mournful eyes glistening at his Oval Office desk, set a somber tone with eight short words:

"The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors," the president said.

Five men and two women flew on Columbia, including co-pilot William C. McCool of San Diego. The others were Rick Husband, the Columbia commander; payload commander Michael Anderson, one of NASA's few African-American astronauts; Kalpana Chawla, who was born in India and became a U.S. citizen; mission specialist David Brown, a Navy captain; mission specialist Laurel Clark, who had been a physician in the Navy; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, a former Israeli fighter pilot and the first person from that country to fly in space.

At least two memorials for the seven dead will be held today: at Temple Adat Shalom in Westwood at 4:30 this afternoon and another at noon at the Los Angeles Baha'i Center.

As news of the disaster spread yesterday, tributes and quiet gestures appeared across the Southland like a wave of sadness hushing the crowd at a huge and great funeral.

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn ordered flags at city buildings — including the 103 fire stations — to half-staff.

Gov. Gray Davis praised the astronauts for "their remarkable courage in the service of their countries" and directed that flags be lowered to half- staff at all state buildings.

Cardinal Roger Mahony offered prayers.

"My prayers and condolences also go to the families of those brave men and women," he said. "As we mourn the loss of these seven people, let us remember that they braved the hazards of space in the hope that their scientific discoveries would benefit the rest of us on Earth. For their unselfish commitment to humanity, we remain ever grateful."

In a telling example of how a national tragedy strikes home wherever we live, it touched Dorsey High School and a state representative who went there.

"We mourn the tragic loss of the seven astronauts whose lives were precious to all Americans and extend condolences to their families," Rep. Diane Watson, D-Los Angeles said.

A science experiment that was on Columbia when it went down was part of a NASA program that involved Watson's alma mater, Dorsey High School.

The Dorsey High students, with students from China, built a habitat to determine whether silkworm larvae would develop differently in a low-gravity environment.

Three Dorsey students — Amabel Atiabet, Juan Ortega and Cristina Mojarro — put the experiment in the space shuttle Columbia before the Jan. 16 launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Watson returned to meet with them to encourage their interest in space and science.

"The students of Dorsey High School will always honor the sacrifices of the international crew of seven courageous men and women astronauts," she said.

Californians especially mourned native son McCool, 41, who NASA tapped for the astronaut program in 1996.

McCool was born in San Diego on Sept. 23, 1961, and later attended Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas, according to his NASA biography. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983 and became a Navy aviator, logging more than 2,800 flight hours in 24 aircraft, according to NASA.

McCool was married.

Jews thought of the tragic dimensions of the life and death of Ramon, the first Israeli in space and the son of Holocaust survivors.

"A tremendous national hero," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper — associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center — in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

"He was the lead pilot who helped take out Saddam Hussein's nuclear threat in 1981," Cooper said, referring to a daring Israeli bombing raid over Iraq, which destroyed a French-built nuclear reactor.

But beyond his military exploits, Ramon captured the imagination of the Israeli public for daring to use the mission as a platform for acts meaningful to Jews.

On the ship, he carried a drawing made by a "young person," who died in a concentration camp during World War II, said Cooper.

Ramon unflinchingly embraced symbolism that "represented Jewish values, Jewish history and the Jewish faith," said Cooper. "He was a powerful hero over here."


Last Updated: Feb 2, 2003

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