LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — One morning nearly 10 years ago, Barry McCool watched his son's space shuttle fly more than 40 miles above his Las Vegas home.
He went back inside to watch a live computer feed from Houston, home of NASA's Mission Control. It wouldn't be long until Columbia landed in Florida. But it never did.
The shuttle piloted by his son William McCool disintegrated high over Texas during its descent back to Earth. All seven crew members died on Feb. 1, 2003.
Even before the tragedy was announced, Barry McCool knew something was wrong when he heard Houston officials say they had lost infrared radar contact with the shuttle and its crew, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/Wqawzo). He got a sickening feeling in his stomach when he saw the flight director's expression, he said.
"Willie's gone," McCool told his wife, Audrey.
She didn't believe it.
"Are you sure?" she asked him.
McCool said he knew he had to get to Houston. His son had designated him as one of his casualty assistant officers — someone who would take care of paperwork and distribute personal effects if the astronaut died.
At the airport, Barry McCool went to the front of the line at the Southwest Airlines counter and told a woman, "I'm (retired Marines) Lt. Cmdr. McCool. My son is Willie McCool and he was just killed on the shuttle. I need to get to Houston."
Two airlines' computers were down. But finally an employee set up his trip, and a golf cart rushed him to the gate, where five Southwest employees hugged him and told him they were holding a seat.
McCool recalled the kindness of strangers as the devastating loss started to sink in. Flight attendants kept asking if he was OK. The co-pilot and later the pilot came back to visit and shared condolences, McCool said.
Then passengers handed him kind notes on napkins during the plane's layover in Lubbock, where Willie McCool spent his last two years of high school after his parents moved there in 1977 after being stationed in Guam. The flight continued to Houston, where the rental car employee saw his name on his driver's license, started crying and apologized for having to charge him for the car, McCool said.
Just 16 days earlier, Barry McCool and his wife were in Florida to watch Columbia's launch.
"That's my little boy sitting on top of 2 million tons of TNT," he thought just seconds after ignition.
McCool was proud of his son, crying — but just he wanted to get through the 86th second. The shuttle Challenger exploded 86 seconds into its tragic 1986 flight, killing all seven astronauts.
Columbia's liftoff seemed fine as the shuttle soared into space. But astronauts and their families didn't know that a chunk of foam tore a hole in Columbia's left wing 82 seconds after liftoff, and the gap later let in the searing gases of re-entry and caused the shuttle to break apart.
The Columbia mission was the first spaceflight for William C. "Willie" McCool, 41, a Navy commander. After graduating second in his 1983 class at the Naval Academy, he went on to test pilot school and became an astronaut in 1996. McCool, an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight, was married with three sons.
Information from: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, http://www.lubbockonline.com