History Book: 20 years since the Columbia disaster | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

History Book: 20 years since the Columbia disaster


WORLD Radio - History Book: 20 years since the Columbia disaster

Plus: a military training exercise, and Super Bowl 22

Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, in this Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003 file photo Associated Press Photo/Dr. Scott Lieberman

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, January 30th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up: the WORLD History Book. Today, the anniversaries of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster as well as a training accident in the U.S. military. But first, we revisit Super Bowl 22. Here’s Paul Butler.


PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today with January 31st, 1988. The 11-4 Washington Redskins and 10-4-1 Denver Broncos face off for the National Football League Championship game.

PRE-GAME SOUND: We are live from San Diego, California on a spectacular day for football…

Super Bowl XXII (22) comes after a strike-shortened season. The Broncos are the 3-point favorites under the leadership of coach Dan Reeves and seasoned quarterback John Elway. The Broncos had been to the Super Bowl the previous year…and lost.

PRE-GAME SOUND: Frank the Denver Broncos making their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance…

During the 1980’s the Washington Redskins had been to the Super Bowl twice under coach Joe Gibbs—but this time around, the team quarterback is the unproven Doug Williams. He began the season as a backup and lost both games he started before the playoffs, but that doesn’t stop the pre-game buzz before the championship game—as Williams is about to make history. He’s the first African American quarterback to start in the Super Bowl.

GAME SOUND: Second and six at the 22-yard line and Williams gives it to Smith and there’s nothing there…

By the end of the first quarter, the score is 10-0—in the Bronco’s favor. Doug Williams injures his back leg and has to leave the field. But he returns in the second quarter and the Redskins find their groove.

GAME SOUND: And Williams going deep…80 yards, touch down! Hello sports fans!

By halftime, the score is 35 to 10, in Washington’s favor —setting a Super Bowl record for number of points scored in a single quarter. At the final whistle, the score is 42 to 10.

Williams is named MVP—becoming the first player in Super Bowl history to pass for four touchdowns in a single quarter. Williams spoke with ABC’s Keith Jackson after the game:

JACKSON: May I say to you sir, I think you have handled your personal week of history nobly.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know the thing I had to say to myself, first of all, I didn't come here with the Washington Redskins as a black quarterback. I came here as the quarterback of the Washington Redskin and to play a football game to win it. Now, whatever happened after that, you know, I can't control anyway. So the most important thing to me was to go out and perform up to my abilities and try to win the football game.

Next, February 3rd, 1998. A United States military pilot is on a training mission near Trento, Italy. He’s flying his reconnaissance plane 540 miles per hour—less than 400 feet from the ground through a mountain valley.

The pilot doesn’t see the cable car gondola crossing the ravine at Cavalese. The plane’s wing clips the cable and the 20 passengers fall 360 feet to the ground below. The pilot makes an emergency landing at a U.S. air base in nearby Aviano.

Standing in front of the smashed car, a first responder speaks with the press:

ZAFFERI: This cable…fell down and crashed…as you can see. And about in hospital there are 20 people. REPORTER: Nobody survived. ZAFFERI: I think not.

Cavalese was the site of the world's worst cable car disaster 22 years earlier—when 42 people were killed. But this accident causes wide-spread anger—as local residents had sought to stop low flying planes in the area for years. The pilot and his navigator were tried for involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide—but a jury acquitted them.

Later it came to light that the pilot and navigator destroyed evidence. The US military court-martialed both for obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

President Bill Clinton apologized and promised reparations. Each family eventually received $65,000 in 1999. Later, the Italian Parliament approved a much larger sum—more than a million dollars per victim. The US government was obliged to cover 75 percent of those payments due to NATO treaties.


And finally, February 1st, 2003. After more than 15 days in space, the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew begin reentry—but as they fly over north Texas, it’s clear something isn’t right.

NEWSCAST AUDIO: At the time, it looked like a normal reentry…but then we began to see this…

Audio from WFAA TV.

During launch on January 16th a piece of insulating foam broke off from the external tank—striking the orbiter’s left wing—damaging thermal protection tiles.

When Columbia re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere two weeks later the heat shield fails, causing the orbiter to break apart.

U.S. President George W. Bush addresses the nation that evening from the cabinet room:

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: …The same creator who named the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home. May God bless the grieving families and may God continue to bless America.

NASA grounds the shuttle program for 2 years after the accident. During that time investigators locate and analyze more than 85,000 pieces of debris. When shuttle missions begin again, they always include a trip to the International Space Station so that astronauts can inspect the vehicle for launch damage before returning home. The shuttle program flew its final mission in 2011.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Paul Butler.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...