- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 2 (UPI) — Conferees attending the 30th annual Conservative Political Action Conference expected to begin the program listening to a vigorous debate between ABC's Sam Donaldson and syndicated columnist Robert Novak about liberal bias in the media.

But Saturday started much different.

Shortly after the program began, Joel Rosenberg, serving as the emcee for the morning, interrupted his remarks to make a shocking announcement: that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Texas as it was preparing to land.

The packed room responded to the news with stunned silence. Rosenberg, who called the report "a story that transcends politics," led the attendees in a moment of silence before resuming the program.

This is not the first time attendees at CPAC have faced such a tragedy.

It was 17 years ago that the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lifting off from Florida's Cape Canaveral just as 13th annual CPAC was getting under way.

The tragedy put a damper on the day's events.

Bridgette Yates, a 31-year old schoolteacher from San Bernardino, Calif., said the news greatly saddened her. "It's a horrible thing. What else can you say?"

As the news of the tragedy came, some in the crowd wondered if the shuttle had been brought down by an act of terrorism.

"I was suspicious at first," Yates said, that terrorism might have played a role. As soon as she learned the details of what apparently happened, she says she began to feel better, "knowing that it probably was not an act of terrorism."

Had it been, she says, "It would have been a double tragedy."

Leigh Frame, a 19-year-old student at Mary Baldwin College, said that her first reaction was just shock. "I didn't believe that something like that could happen today with all the innovations in technology."

"On top of Sept. 11 and all the people we've lost since then, it's just devastating."

Unlike Yates, Frame says the idea that it could have been a terrorist act "didn't occur to her until she heard it mentioned on television." Like Yates, she is grateful that it wasn't.

As the conference continued through the day people hungry for information gathered around one small television at the exhibition booth of the 60 Plus Association, a conservative seniors group. Located near a window, the television was the only one in proximity to the conference's main room that could receive a broadcast television signal.

Gathered in a semi-circle, the attendees strained to view through a ghosty and blurry picture the news reports and commentators and, over and over again, the footage of the shuttle as it fell to earth.

In a conference as large as CPAC it is inevitable that some will engage in wild speculation after an event such as Saturday's tragedy. Anyone listening carefully in the exhibition call could hear the odd supposition that Columbia was brought down by terrorism or that the earlier Challenger disaster was the result of sabotage that the government has covered up.

For most, however, the primary concern was for the families of those who had been lost. "It's an unbelievable tragedy," said Tim Ziegler, who runs a small business in Erie, Colo. "My heart goes out to the families of the astronauts — just as it did for the families of the four U.S. servicemen killed in a Blackhawk helicopter" earlier in the week.

"My sympathies are always strong for the families of those who lose their lives in the service of the country or in the service of others."

President George W. Bush was very much on the mind of the conferees as events unfolded. Ziegler said the president's afternoon address to the nation "was exactly correct."

"It emphasized the need to continue space exploration and put the lose in perspective," Ziegler said. "Once again he struck the proper tone in a time of national tragedy."

Hannah Josi, a 9-year-old girl from Alexandria, Va., attending the conference with her father, said she felt "sad for the families of the people on the shuttle and for anyone who might have been hurt by the pieces that fell on the ground."

"I think the president must be really depressed," she said. "He's the one who sent them into space and I bet he feels really sad. He's the leader of the country and every one is counting on him to root them on."

Josi's words will likely be echoed in classrooms across the country Monday as children try to figure out what happened.

Yates said that in times such as these, teachers will bring the children together, tell them what happened and then lead them in a discussion. "We'll talk about what happened and the repercussions and how they feel about it."

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