Across Central Florida, people shared a reaction.
They stopped. A strange feeling chilled them. Had something gone wrong? They hoped and prayed. Then, running for a television or radio, they knew.
At the Kennedy Space Center, shuttle heat tile specialist Michael Duda watched in the Vehicle Assembly Building 3 miles from the launch pad with about a half-dozen other workers.
For several seconds after the explosion, they did not speak.
Duda said to himself, ''This isn't happening. It's a dream. It isn't real.''
A Lockheed worker from Orlando, Duda, 35, has seen every shuttle launch. He had helped ready the Challenger for this one.
The workers on the ground tried to make sense of the confusion of smoke in the sky. ''We were hoping that the shuttle got away,'' Duda said. ''Then we saw all kinds of pieces coming down. We thought we had lost everything.''
In tears, Orange County Commissioner Vera Carter rushed out of her office to tell staff members.
Commissioners, their aides and staff members crowded around a color television in a staff lounge. They watched replays of the explosion in silence. One scene showed a parachute floating to the ground. They hoped it was a good sign.
Then television announcers said the parachute held no crew.
''It's a tragedy,'' one aide said.
''It's worse than that,'' County Administrator Tom Sewell said.
They left in silence.
The white streams of the explosion lingered in the sky. The radio reported a disaster.
Tractor-trailers slowed along Interstate 4. Cars and pickups pulled off to the sides of the road and stopped, their drivers looking east.
Couples held hands, and three men hugged each other.
Drivers and passengers dried tears from their eyes, glancing repeatedly to the east where the white shuttle trail twisted, 10 miles high.
In bright daylight, nearly all the drivers turned on their headlights in what might have been an expression of hope for the seven crew members -- or a final salute.
A regular event in Central Florida, launches still draw prideful visitors from other parts of the country.
Chester and Sam Arthur thought it was important enough to take their 7- year-old daughter, Rachel, out of school in Milton, Pa., their home.
With others on the State Road 528 causeway north of Cocoa, they watched the explosion.
''These people will never see another sunrise -- they're gone. A 'major malfunction,' they're calling it. What an understatement,'' said Mrs. Arthur. ''I wonder what the parents and the children of the astronauts are feeling. One minute, they had a wife or a mother and now they don't.''
Her husband said, ''I wonder what the parents of the people on board are feeling when they realized that that cloud up there is all that's left of their children.''
Rachel simply said, ''My heart just left the place it's supposed to be when they said it exploded.''
Many compared that sick feeling to the loss they felt when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.
''We haven't had such a feeling in the pit of our stomachs since the day Kennedy was assassinated,'' said Linda Kobal, a travel consultant in Winter Park.
Barbara and Ray Giulioli, visiting Walt Disney World's Epcot Center from Michigan, felt the same.
''It's just a tragedy,'' said Giulioli. ''It's the same feeling as when John Kennedy was assassinated.''
At the Columbia Restaurant at St. Armand's Key near Sarasota, where people were gathering for lunch, the presidential tragedy also was recalled.
''We just couldn't believe our eyes,'' said Casey Gonzmart, 37, the manager. ''It was the same gut feeling I had when I was in high school in Tampa and they said President Kennedy had been shot.''
After the explosion had been replayed several times, Gonzmart had the television turned off. ''I couldn't watch it anymore.''
Others watched again and again to try to understand.
In stores at Colonial Plaza and Fashion Square malls, shoppers and employees gathered around televisions to watch replays.
Most people watched quietly, shaking their heads in disbelief.
Kathy Hudson, a Sears employee, said she believed the fire was from the booster separation.
''At first, that's what I thought it was doing. But it was too much of an explosion.''
When the solid rocket boosters flew in separate directions, they crisscrossed, leaving a weird trail of smoke that hung a long time.
Felicia Sherman, 32, was watching from outside a travel store in Pine Hills.
''I was petrified. I was shaking like a leaf.''
Through binoculars, she saw a parachute.
''I was hoping and I was praying.''
After the shock, the realization sank in.
Eleanor Fisher, whose son, Bill, flew on a previous shuttle mission, was sitting at home in Winter Park when she heard the news.
''I don't want to think about my son being up there,'' she said. ''I feel so sorry for those other families. They are so careful down there I just couldn't see how a thing like this could happen.''
Nearly 60 angry callers grounded a skywriter for the Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus Tuesday after the pilot drew happy faces over Orlando while smoke from the explosion lingered.
''People were asking if we had lost our minds,'' said Bob Bernard, marketing manager for the Orlando entertainment complex.
The pilot was called down immediately.
''Once we realized there were fatalities, we stopped,'' said Joe Kittinger, manager of the Flying Circus. He would not identify the pilot.
Kittinger said the plane took off as the shuttle accident happened, but the pilot went ahead with the advertising.
''All other advertising kept going, like on the radio,'' said Kittinger. ''We're just more visible.''
All across Central Florida, people felt a personal loss. All across the state, they tried to understand.
''Why? Why? I guess that's like saying, 'Why did somebody die in a car accident?' The world just seems to be falling apart,'' said Lisa Crystal Ball, 21, a public relations student at Daytona Beach Community College.
Streams from the explosion remained in the sky southeast of DeLand for about 45 minutes. Pedestrians along the street occasionally would stop and glance up at them.
''I hope it was at least quick for them,'' said Bill Maurelis, as he looked up at the streams of white smoke from his DeLand service station. ''It must have been. They couldn't have even known what hit them.''
Orlando Sentinel staffers Geri Throne, Jim Jennings, Ruth Rasche, Donna Bouffard, Scott Rodrian, Tom Scherberger, Mildred A. Williams, Rick Tonyan, Charlene Hager and Craig Crawford contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times