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Year After Disaster : Challenger's Wake: Rage, Pain, Guilt

January 28, 1987|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | Times Staff Writer

"They perceived me to be an exposer," Boisjoly said, "but I felt like we were being pushed out on a plank. NASA was trying to discredit us. The company was treating us like black sheep. It got to be very personal, very uncomfortable.

"I'm ashamed to say it, but it got to where I wanted less to be proven right than for them to be proven wrong," he conceded.

Although the presidential commission expressed admiration for "the courageous testimony" of Boisjoly, McDonald and the others, the engineers felt like men under siege back home.

It was a bad time for Thiokol all around. After the accident, the shuttle program stopped and about 200 engineers were temporarily laid off. Some feared it would be a long "temporary" layoff. Management officials were under fire, and those who didn't take early retirement were demoted or reassigned to lesser positions.

Wife Is Accosted

Animosity festered in many quarters, and much of the blame was placed on the embarrassing testimony of the five engineers. One afternoon, Roberta Boisjoly was confronted by an engineer's wife who shook her head and demanded: "Why are they saying all these things about Thiokol? Don't they see the press is just twisting it all around? Everyone knows it couldn't be our fault what happened."

NASA's irritation with McDonald and Boisjoly, in particular, finally resulted in their virtual isolation. Thiokol managers cut them off from dealing with the space agency.

Ebeling was systematically excluded from technical conferences that were once part of his duties. "They acted like I wasn't needed anymore," he said with a shrug.

Boisjoly and Brian Russell returned from brief vacations to find that managers had ignored some key technical advice about new rocket joints, and the mild, gentlemanly Russell angrily confronted his bosses, saying: "I guess I'll go start writing my memos for 1988!"

Meanwhile, as reorganization radically changed Thiokol's management lineup, Thompson, Russell and McDonald were passed over for promotions.

"A lot of people who didn't have the courage to speak up got promoted," observed one colleague of "the five lepers."

Throughout the early months, Boisjoly refused to visit a psychiatric counseling clinic that Thiokol set up in Brigham City to help its employees cope with the trauma of the shuttle disaster.

"I was afraid it wouldn't be confidential. I just didn't trust the company," Boisjoly said later. "I was afraid if I went they might try to use that to say, 'hey, we told you those engineers were crazy.' "

Congress learned about Thiokol's treatment of the engineers, and threatened to retaliate against the company. McDonald ultimately was promoted to director of Thiokol's crash effort to redesign the booster rocket, and life improved for the others. But for Boisjoly, it came too late.

Roger Boisjoly didn't notice the anger that raged within him. Not at first. Everyone else did--Roberta and the girls, Norma and Darlene--even the dog. He yelled at the dog. He yelled at his daughters. He raged at anything and anyone at the slightest provocation.

"We couldn't even go for drives any more," Roberta Boisjoly recalled. "If some driver cut us off, Roger would get furious. Before, maybe he'd mutter and complain, but now he would go after them. I mean, he'd aim the car and drive right at them! It was . . . it was . . . well, it wasn't like Roger."

Another clue was his waistline. Boisjoly, a confessed "nervous eater," gained more than 40 pounds in about four months after the shuttle crash.

For months, he was obsessed with the rocket seal problem. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't talk about anything without coming around to the O-ring seals. He stopped going to church to avoid the crowds. He was starting to have headaches.

Double-Vision Episode

Other members of "the leper colony" made a habit of dropping by his office to check on Boisjoly's condition. Sometimes they found him staring at the wall. Then came the numbness in his left arm, and tightness in his chest. One day at his desk, his eyesight failed. It was the sudden onset of double vision that frightened him into visiting the doctor.

His problem was diagnosed as stress-related. He finally sought counseling.

Last July, he put in his last full day at the plant. He had intended to return after a two-month rest, and after Darlene's wedding in September. But the anger was like a disabling poison in his system. He applied for long-term disability, and the company granted it last Saturday.

For Bob Ebeling, 62, the crippling poison is fear. He wants no role in another space shuttle launching. He wants no responsibility that affects the lives of others.

"I couldn't stand another malfunction that I had anything to do with," Ebeling explained.

Bob Lund was the vice president who cast the final, reluctant vote to go ahead with the launching. His friends still worry about how he's coping with the ordeal.

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