AS the grim process of collecting human remains, discovered in a swathe of eastern Texas, continued yesterday, friends and family of the seven astronauts killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster gathered to commemorate their dead.
''It had been an absolutely flawless flight,'' said Daniel Salton, brother of crew member Laurel Clark. ''To have this happen with 15 minutes to go until it was over was just unbearable.''
Columbia's crew woke up on their fateful final day, to the sound of bagpipes playing Scotland the Brave.
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The recording was in honour of crew member Mrs Clark, 41, who was of Scottish origin and was said to have become very fond of Scotland when she served with the US Navy at the Holy Loch.
Mrs Clark, whose full name was Laurel Blair Salton Clark, was married to Jonathan Clark, a captain in the US Navy, with one child.
Born in Iowa in America's Mid-West, she considered Racine, Wisconsin to be her home town and listed scuba diving, hiking, camping, parachuting and flying among her hobbies.
In Racine yesterday, Mr Salton prayed yesterday with members of his family at the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church.
''I'm just so glad she got to get up to space and got to see it because that had been a dream for a long time,'' Mr Salton said. ''She saw the path to be an astronaut was open - she went at it full throttle all the way.''
For Commander Clark's aunt and uncle, Betty and Doug Haviland, of Ames, Iowa, the tragedy brought back memories of another loss. Their son, Timothy, died in the World Trade Centre attack on September 11, 2001.
''You sort of had the sickening feeling that here we go again,'' 76-year-old Mr Haviland said. Mrs Haviland said her niece was ''very proud to be representing her country''.
She added: ''She had done something in a world usually reserved for men and she was pleased at the opportunity.''
In Las Vegas, Audrey McCool, whose son William, had been among the seven astronauts, said she wanted Nasa's space programme to go on. ''We don't want those people to have died in vain,'' she said as she prepared to fly to Houston where members of the astronauts' families were being kept in seclusion by Nasa.
For Israelis, the death of the country's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, a child of Holocaust survivors, turned a day of glory into a national day of mourning.
Colonel Ramon's father, 79-year-old Eliezer Wolferman, was being interviewed on Israeli television when a news flash interrupted him in mid-flow. Informed that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Texas, he said simply: ''I have no son.''
Just hours earlier, Mr Wolferman beamed as he gave a live television interview shortly before the shuttle was due to land.
''Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air,'' he said.
He added ''I think of everything from the day he was born until now,'' he said. ''I have no son. It is very sad, and I don't know what else to say.''
Cohava Eyal, Colonel Ramon's sister, said: ''We are deeply sorry for all the families. We have deep sympathy for everybody.''
Wearing a space shuttle mission pin, she was among six family members and three friends arriving in Houston to join the Israeli astronaut's wife and children.
Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the US, arrived in Houston yesterday to meet with Nasa officials for an update on the search for remains.
He said he had met Colonel Ramon's wife, Rona, on Saturday night. ''We had a very painful and emotional meeting last night, but she struck me also as very resilient, very proud and a very strong person. She was very proud of her husband, of what he did. She said how confident she is that he died so happy.''
Ron Dittemore, Nasa shuttle director, wept as he told a press conference: ''We're devastated.'' Yesterday, the space agency named Harold Gehman, a retired Navy admiral who helped investigate the USS Cole terrorist bombing to lead an independent investigation of the accident.