Idaho StoryCorps: Barbara And Clay Morgan: Teacher In Space, Husband In Jeopardy

Sep 25, 2013

Clay Morgan in another precarious firefighting situation.
Credit Clay Morgan

Back in 1985 Idaho's teacher in space Barbara Morgan was at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. She was one of ten finalists for the Teacher in Space program.  Meanwhile, in Idaho, her husband Clay was a smokejumper.  He says a few days before Barbara would learn whether she'd become the first teacher in space, he faced his own survival story. 

"We had a big lightning storm come through and start lots of fires around Boise and McCall," said Clay. "Early in the morning we got up and a bunch of us got on the old DC-3 with the door off it and we had our jumpsuits on and parachutes.  We flew off [to] a beautiful looking little fire in the Seven Devils Mountains, right on the edge of Hells Canyon, just gorgeous.

Clay and Barbara Morgan in McCall in 1987.
Credit Clay and Barbara Morgan

“Bob Shumaker was my jump partner.  It was a small enough fire that only two of us were going to jump it.  What it was was one Grand Fir with a spiked top, like two legs sticking up, burning right between these two spires. 

"We had a chain saw and we cut the undercut in and then we came back and cut the back cut, so it was supposed to fall toward the undercut.  But the tree leaned one way and each of these heavy spires leaned opposite ways.  We sawed all the way through and it didn’t fall over.  It was perfectly balanced. 

"So we got a wedge, a piece of wood about eight inches long and we figured out which way to run when it started to fall and as we would do this and it started to go, it opened up and let air in to feed this fire inside the tree, so it turned into this blast furnace.  The heat on our faces and everything.  Bob stood behind me with his hand on my shoulder, because I couldn’t look up, and he pounded my shoulder and we both turned and ran, he was in front of me and we were running.  This big shadow showed up just like a chicken hawk going after a little chicken and just went plunk and just slammed me down.”

“So the tree hit you?” asked Barbara.

Clay and Barbara Morgan today.
Credit StoryCorps

“No one of those spires came off,” said Clay. “Big heavy thing.  It knocked me down.  There was a log on the ground with those sticks sticking out of it, you know.  I hit my jaw on that tree and one of those sticks went up right through here under my jaw and into my mouth.  It just crushed me you know and I was out. 

"And I woke up and I look up and Bob’s laying on the ground. He got hit too, and he’s looking back over his shoulder at me and he’s got the worst look on his face and I can’t move my jaw and I can’t breathe.   And my vision just started closing down. 

"I had broken my rib and all of a sudden my rib muscles relaxed and I got this big breath and took this amazing breath of air.  I had all this blood coming down on my shirt. It had missed the juggler and all of that.  Bob was sticking bandages up under me.  And all the flowers, these blue and red flowers, looked ultraviolet.  It was just amazing.

“Because I had hurt myself, I was taken off the jump list.  I was in McCall at the base and I was able to watch when they announced who the teacher in space would be.”

Clay Morgan heard then-Vice President George Bush announce that Christa McAuliffe would be the first teacher in space.  McAuliffe and her crew died in the Challenger explosion in 1986.  Barbara Morgan continued on with NASA as a teacher and an astronaut. She went into orbit on the Endeavor in 2007.

StoryCorps is a national initiative to record and collect stories of everyday people. Excerpts were selected and produced by Boise State Public Radio. 

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