I'm trying to pin down a memory of a short story which I first read sometime in the early-to-mid 1980s (in an anthology I found in a school library, I think). I later found it again in another book, in another library, sometime in the 1990s. I remember the general plot, but not who wrote it. I have the impression that the story was already pretty old before I first ran across it.
Here's the plot outline:
As the story begins, a spaceship containing hundreds (or even more?) of passengers is returning to Earth from some other planet.
Something goes terribly wrong, and they lose the main engine. (Which may have been the only engine -- I'm not sure of the technical details.) I don't recall if it was accident, sabotage, a meteor strike, or what, but their main means of propulsion is gone, with no hope of fixing it any time soon.
The timing is terrible. The ship is still on a trajectory that has it approaching Earth at high speed, and it badly needs to decelerate if there's to be any hope of touching down safely instead of slamming into the planet so hard that it will inevitably kill everyone aboard. But now the ship can't decelerate (nor change course to miss Earth entirely, which could have bought them valuable time), and there's only a matter of some hours left before the projected time of impact.
Some political and military leaders meet on Earth for an emergency conference to discuss their options. What it comes down to is that a) there is no way to save the passengers and crew of the ship, no matter what they do, but b) if they do nothing at all, this will also mean the tragic deaths of millions of other civilians in the region which the ship will crash into. Not so much because of the shock of impact, but because of the sound in the minute or so before that.
My memory gets blurred on the physical details of what makes the sound so bad . . . but I think the general idea may have been that such a huge metallic mass, moving so incredibly fast as it comes down toward the Eastern Seaboard of North America (or perhaps some other densely populated bit of the globe?), will be "screaming" in such a way that the vibrations racing through the air will shatter zillions of pieces of glass and/or otherwise cause huge numbers of fatalities down on the ground, even before the ship strikes whatever bit of the Earth's surface it is projected to strike.
The final decision is that the lesser of two evils is to send up a missile (nuclear warhead, I think?) to vaporize the ship before it comes plummeting through the air near an urban area.
I think that the officers aboard the ship either already knew, or very strongly suspected, that everyone aboard was doomed after the main engine had dropped dead. But the Captain and his loyal subordinates do their best to maintain a stiff upper lip in order to prevent mass hysteria from breaking out among the passengers. There's one bit where it is announced that a rescue ship is coming up from Earth to pull alongside the falling ship and then they'll transfer the passengers to safety. I believe the Captain knows darn well that the laws of physics do not make such a maneuver possible at this late date, and thus "a rescue mission" cannot be the intended function of the fast-moving blip on the radar screen that is headed straight for his ship, but he sees nothing to be gained by telling everyone the truth. So most of them die in blissful ignorance.