NACOGDOCHES, Texas – They were unfortunate witnesses to history, some hearing a boom like a car crash, others videotaping the hideous sight of the space shuttle Columbia breaking apart.
A father and son were heading for a fishing trip. A U.S. senator was taking a walk on a beautiful Dallas morning.
Patricia Hernandez was on her way home to Palestine in east Texas after going to a funeral. She saw a "fire in the sky ... like the sky was falling." Pieces of debris rained down across east Texas.
From California to Texas to Louisiana, early risers, space buffs and passers-by watched as the shuttle, 39 miles high, came apart and took the lives of all seven astronauts aboard.
In a small town in California, Anthony Beasley, an astronomer, got up before dawn with his wife and mother-in-law to watch the shuttle on its way to the landing pad at Cape Canaveral.
The craft was immediately visible in the clear, dark sky, he said.
"As it tracked from west to east ... it was leaving a bright trail. As it actually moved over the valley there were a couple of flashes," he said from Bishop, about 225 miles north of Los Angeles.
In east Texas, Doug Ruby and his father were nearing the Lake O' the Pines for a day of fishing when they saw the explosion.
"It was right at 8 a.m. We saw it coming across the sky real bright and shiny and all in one piece. We thought it was the sun shining off an airplane. Then it broke up in about six pieces, they were all balls of fire, before it went over the tree line," Ruby told The Associated Press.
In Dallas, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was taking a walk when she "heard this boom, which I thought was the breaking of the sound barrier."
"It's a shock and it just brings home to you that when we are exploring in space and pushing the envelope that we can't be 100 percent accurate," Hutchison said.
Dr. Scott Lieberman went out to his backyard in Tyler, Texas, with a video camera, digital camera and binoculars, and caught images of the destruction.
In Nacogdoches, about 50 people gathered to look at a piece of metal debris about 4 feet long and 4 feet wide in a bank parking lot that authorities had taped off, said R.T. Gregory, a waiter at a local cafe.
Police in Arkansas and Louisiana both reported getting calls about the explosion. Louisiana State Police in Bossier City, 182 miles east of Dallas, got so many calls that one trooper had to be assigned just to answer the phone.
"One said he saw a plane breaking up over Shreveport. One said he saw a big ball of fire," state police Sgt. Steve Robinson said. Another caller said a blast "shook his house."
Chris Linville was working at Brookhaven Pet Hospital in Addison, north of Dallas, when he went outside a few minutes after 8 a.m. to watch the shuttle pass overhead.
"We went outside to see if it was landing. We saw a streak going across the sky. From the viewpoint we had, we did see some flames," said Linville, 21. "We knew it was flying over, and we were actually looking for the shuttle passing by. We had no idea."