COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Friends and family of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair say the explosion Saturday of space shuttle Columbia is a painful reminder of a similar tragedy 17 years ago.
The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, claiming the lives of seven astronauts, including Lake City native McNair.
Lela Austin, McNair's aunt, first received word from a friend Saturday that Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas.
"It took me right back," Austin said in a telephone interview from her Lake City home. "I've just been reliving that tragic day."
McNair's legacy is alive in Lake City, where a statue and park were created as memorials. Plans also are under way to establish a museum in his honor.
The city held its annual candlelight service for McNair just last week, said T.R. Cooper, chairman of the Ron McNair Committee and McNair's elementary school principal.
To witness another shuttle explosion days later disturbed Cooper.
"I was completely shocked - then it was just a flashback to 1986," he said.
Both Cooper and Austin said their thoughts are with the friends and families of the seven astronauts killed Saturday.
"My prayer is that God will hold them all close in his arms," Austin said.
Loved ones can find solace in the fact that the astronauts died doing what they loved, Cooper said.
"That's the way I can get past it, because I knew they were doing something they wanted," he said. "All we can do is make sure we keep their legacies alive."
Austin said she expects the disaster will pull people together, as it did when her nephew perished aboard the Challenger.
"We got past it through support from each other," she said. "There was so much love from people all over the nation and all over the world."
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