Texas, La. showered with shuttle's debris

Residents, officials find ship's remnants, remains over 500-square-mile area

The Loss of Columbia

February 02, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

NACOGDOCHES, TEXAS - Behind a trash bin in an otherwise empty downtown parking lot yesterday sat a piece of metal the size of a car door.

All day, people came and went to catch a glimpse of it - and yellow police tape made sure they didn't get too close.

In Kalin Kendrick's pasture east of town, the county sheriff's department guarded a charred piece of metal that appeared to be part of a computer, just one piece in a line of debris that extended from her property over a creek and onto her father-in-law's adjacent land.

Jagged pieces of metal, handfuls of foam insulation, items that appeared to be the shuttle's thermal tiles - even a 10-foot-wide tank in nearly pristine condition - rained down over hundreds of square miles of East Texas yesterday, all that was left of the space shuttle Columbia.

Seventeen years after watching on television as seven astronauts were lost in a wintertime explosion in the sky, the people of this college town of 29,000 witnessed a parallel tragedy unfold literally in their back yards.

"Everywhere you drive, you see little spray-painted circles with a little flag sticking in them that's a piece of the space shuttle sitting in our town," said Kendrick, a stay-at-home mother of two. "We're just a little speck on the map, and it's just amazing that such a big piece of history has fallen in this little town."

Nacogdoches, which sits nearly halfway between Dallas and Houston, is billed as the oldest town in Texas. It was, until now, known primarily as the home of Stephen F. Austin State University.

There have been no reports of injuries from falling debris, officials said, though some barns, homes and businesses suffered minor damage.

Nearly 50 people went to area hospitals after touching pieces of the shuttle - afraid that they had been contaminated with toxic chemicals. All were sent home, said County Judge Sue Kennedy, also the county's emergency management director.

To help deal with all the debris, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are sending about 100 inspectors and investigators, said Rep. Max Sandlin, a Democrat who represents Texas' 1st District.

"NASA prefers that each piece of debris be located and secured," he said. "With 800 already identified, it's going to be virtually impossible."

Debris has been tracked in a 500-square-mile area, but it could be spread over a region three times that size, said James Kroll, director of the Emergency Geospacial Mapping Center at Stephen F. Austin State. In such a rural area, residents will likely find pieces of debris for years.

Authorities have tried to respond to every call about a new piece. County officials wish they could stand guard over all of them, Kennedy said, but they don't have the manpower, despite help from neighboring counties and the National Guard.

Instead, the larger and more intriguing pieces are being protected, while officials help NASA by cataloguing the location and description of each piece and taking pictures. Meanwhile, there is a concern about souvenir-seekers.

At least one person has already tried to profit by selling a remnant of the shuttle on eBay. Bidding opened at 2:43 p.m. yesterday for what was billed as "Columbia Space Shuttle Debris." The opening bid was $10,000.

The piece was offered by a seller in the Dallas-Fort Worth area identified only as the "ticket-nazi," who was apparently undaunted by a statement eBay released about 10 a.m. saying the sale of shuttle debris is prohibited. By last night, eBay had shut it down.

The remains of the shuttle found here are in pieces ranging from extremely small to more than 7 feet long. "Most of the pieces are so jagged, you can't really describe the shape or the size," Kennedy said.

Also yesterday, officials also began the sad task of recovering the remains of the astronauts.

An East Texas high school was turned into a morgue. Authorities said remains were being collected in an area between Hemphill and Jasper and taken to Hemphill High School. A local funeral home was FBI and the Defense Department workers. One official said investigators were using a global positioning system to record where remains were found.

In Hemphill, near the Louisiana state line, hospital employee Mike Gibbs reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near other debris. Billy Smith, an emergency coordinator for three East Texas counties, confirmed the find. Other remains included an arm and a hand found near Chinquapin.

A flight helmet landed on James Couch's property near State Highway 103 and Farm-to-Market Road 1751 in San Augustine County. He guarded the helmet, setting up camp 5 feet away.

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