By Maj. Cindy East, 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. — It was 35 years ago, at 6:31 p.m.
Jan. 27, 1967 when a capsule fire at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex
34 claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts, Lt. Col. Virgil Grissom,
Lt. Col. Edward White II and Naval Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee.

This year, family and friends, joined by Air Force members including Col.
Sameul Dick, 45th Space Wing vice commander, the Patrick AFB Honor Guard,
along with students from the Melbourne, Fla., Eau Gallie High School
Ensemble, banded together to pay tribute to the fellow servicemembers and

For the last 17 years, people have been making the pilgrimage to SLC 34
to commemorate the service and sacrifice of the three astronauts. Family
members returning to SLC 34 this year included Betty Grissom, widow of
Gus Grissom; her two sons, Scott and Mark Grissom; Norman Grissom,
brother of Gus Grissom; and their immediate families.

Also sitting quietly among the crowd this year was an elderly man named
Steven Clemmons, former spacecraft test team member. As one of the first
men at the scene of the fateful fire that night, Clemmons worked in vain
to open the capsule’s three hatches in time to save the astronauts.

Visibly holding back emotions he said, "Its the first time I’ve walked
that road [from the SLC 34 blockhouse to the pad] in 35 years." Clemmons
gave a glimpse into the Apollo years of the U.S. Space Program and
described the building euphoria by the late fall of 1966 and the "Go
Fever" which spurred them toward President Kennedy’s goal of landing a
man on the moon by the end of the decade.

"Things were not as I remembered," he said. "The night of the fire there
was a service tower reaching into the sky. There was a spacecraft nestled
into a clean room at the top of the tower with three souls on board. Then
something brought the horror of that night back. I saw the road leading
from the tower to the blockhouse where I had walked that night in a daze,
a few minutes after the fire. Not remembering anything but the thoughts
that we had just lost our crew, wondering what I would say to the
families and how I was going to explain how it had happened. In my
memories, that walk seemed to last forever. I found out later that my
hands were burned, but I don’t remember the pain."

Traveling more than 600 miles from his home in Wilmington, N.C., to
attend Sunday’s ceremonies, Clemmons, now 70, said he had wanted to
attend the services each year but there were so many bad memories of
that night that he couldn’t go back. This year, he said he decided to
face it and tell the families what he had wanted to tell them 35 years

"With the help of the Air Force, I was finally able to meet Mrs. Betty
Grissom and her family after so many years," he said. "A large load
seemed to lift off my shoulders when we were able to just sit and
talk — it was the high point of my trip."

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