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Forsyth County worker recalls role in Space Shuttle Challenger recovery
Pugh - photo by Kelly Whitmire

FORSYTH COUNTY — Many people can tell you exactly where they were when they learned that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded. Forsyth County employee Chris Pugh certainly does.

On Jan. 28, 1986, Pugh was a technical sergeant stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, near the shuttle’s launch site in Cape Canaveral, and was part of emergency response efforts in the immediate aftermath.

Now a senior process analyst for the county government, Pugh shared his experience with a gathering at the Forsyth County Senior Center on Thursday, the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

“During the rescue, my duty was partially to navigate and to look for the debris,” he said. “When we had to launch our para-rescue guys … where they jump out of the helicopter and I hoist them back in. And then I communicated with any ships.”

Pugh said his team also was in charge of marking possible debris during the lengthy search.

“We’d take these flares, twist them and as soon as they hit the water, they were activated by saltwater, so we marked the spot and moved on,” Pugh said. “For the next three and a half weeks, we searched and searched. In fact, by the second week there was debris up in Maine from the shuttle.”

The failure of the launch was attributed largely to the weather, as it was too cold for certain parts of the shuttle to properly function. He said the decision to launch was due to the fact that it had previously been delayed several times.

“Any time a rocket or shuttle is delayed it costs a lot of money because they have to refuel that, the astronauts have to sit on their back for four to six hours,” he said.

Pugh’s team was in charge of securing areas of the ocean where rockets would fall and were free of ships and boats. As there was already a delay that morning, the team was back at its base with repairs being performed to the helicopter when the explosion happened.

“There was never a contingency plan for a mass explosion,” Pugh said. “When you’re sitting there at the cape and its five miles away from where you’re sitting and you can feel the explosion, it’s something else.

“It exploded. My crew was sitting back at the airport, and they changed the blade in about 15 minutes. I think that’s the fastest blade change on a helicopter in history.”

Even with the fast repairs, Pugh said they were not immediately able to leave.

“We were about to take off, but we couldn’t,” he said. “The debris didn’t stop falling for almost an hour.”

Once recovery efforts were completed, conspiracy theories of what really happened started pouring in, but Pugh felt it was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.

“It’s all what ifs, you never know,” he said. “The truth is it was a mistake. NASA made a decision and never should have launched that shuttle that day.”