For many on Guam, the deaths of space shuttle Columbia’s crew Saturday really hit home: Columbia’s pilot, Cmdr. William McCool, lived on the tiny Pacific island from 1975-77 as a Navy dependent.

He later married Guam native Atilana Vallejos, whom he knew from attending John F. Kennedy High School, said Mick Pexa, a longtime friend.

Island civic and religious officials initiated a nine-day prayer vigil Tuesday to remember all the astronauts, but especially McCool, said Guam Sen. Larry Kasperbauer.

Thousands of islanders were set to attend a memorial service Wednesday night at Hagatna’s Catholic Cathedral to honor the NASA astronaut, said Pexa, the event organizer and acting spokesman for McCool’s in-laws on Guam.

“He loved Guam,” said Pexa, who was among about a half-dozen Guam family members and friends McCool invited to witness the Jan. 16 launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Pexa subsequently sent McCool an e-mail wishing him a safe landing.

“Five hours later, the catastrophe happened,” said Pexa, adding he still was struggling with the tragedy’s timing — that it happened after his friend made it through all the critical stages of takeoff, the 16-day mission and then re-entry.

Pexa said he would have been watching the shuttle return to Earth but most of the island still lacks cable television following Super Typhoon Pongsona, which pummeled the island in December.

When McCool entered space for his 16-day mission, he took a World War II vintage flag from former Guam Congressman Robert Underwood, who also attended the launch with his wife. It belonged to Underwood’s mother and flew in Guam’s first Liberation Day parade 59 years ago. The flag was considered a national treasure, Pexa said.

McCool also carried a copy of Kasperbauer’s resolution recognizing the astronaut’s ties to Guam and praising his achievements. The resolution commended McCool for being a role model to the island’s youth, said the lawmaker, who read it before the Guam Legislature the day McCool rode into space.

“We wanted to promote Cmdr. McCool’s achievements to inspire our young people and show them that one of our own has gone on to gain international respect and fame,” Kasperbauer said.

Many of the 130 Army ROTC cadets at the University of Guam grieved the catastrophe, said Army Lt. Col. Charles Bonnell, military science professor.

“Everyone was sad … wanting to know how something like that could happen to the most technologically advanced country in the world,” he said.

Junior and senior ROTC students already on contract to become Army officers found it a sobering reminder of the inherent dangers associated with military life, Bonnell said. “They took it harder than their freshmen and sophomore counterparts,” he added. “They understood that many of the astronauts were servicemembers who died while carrying out their duties. … They understood that the seven astronauts knew the risks they were taking and accepted them openly, knowing something could happen.”

The lieutenant colonel’s wife is Maj. Francoise Bonnell, 1101st Garrison Support Unit commander at the Army Reserve center, Barrigada, Guam. She said her troops learned of the shuttle disaster Sunday at a 7:30 a.m. formation.

“The entire unit went quiet,” she said.

When another soldier reminded them that McCool had carried the Guam flag into space, “we all realized that a little bit of Guam was on that space shuttle,” said the major. “Our hearts ached for his family and our island’s family.”

McCool's poem

When Cmdr. William “Willie” McCool attended Dededo Junior High School in 1975, he revealed his love for Guam in a poem published in the school’s newspaper, The Beep! Beep! Roadrunner.

While cleaning her garage in the United States, the school’s former editor, Janet Rhodes-Arnold, coincidentally found the poem Saturday, the day the shuttle exploded over Texas, according to McCool friend Mick Pexa. He received a copy of the poem Tuesday in an e-mail.

The poem:I came to an island in the middle of the sea

It was so nice that I jumped for glee

There are palm trees, coconuts and bananas too

Plus birds and fish so unbelievable but true

It is so nice that no one can complain

But he who does must be insane

This is such a nice and beautiful place

You’d think it was heaven — or outer space

— Willie McCool

Dededo Junior High School, February 1975

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