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Columbia

Remnants of tragedy

By Times staff writers, Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2003


The trail of debris from the final flight of the shuttle Columbia brought curiosity, sadness, even a sense of history.

Some pieces were no bigger than a nickel, others as large as a pickup truck. There were hundreds of reports of metal fragments, brackets, tiles, a helmet. They were found on farmland, along country roads, on roofs and in front yards of a debris field of about 300 miles long.

At each location, from north central Texas to Louisiana, the findings frequently drew crowds of onlookers.

Many took pictures, many speculated, and many simply stared in quiet reflection.

-- Reports by Alisa Ulferts and Karthryn Wexler of the Times staff

'A piece of history' at a high school

RICE, TEXAS -- The high school in Rice, a small community along Interstate 45 southeast of Dallas, was abuzz with activity.

Onlookers gathered to behold a piece of posterity: a 6-inch-by-6-inch piece of rust-colored tile marked by a miniature American flag.

The site was marked by a small American flag, lowered to half-staff.

"You hate that the whole thing happened, and yet we're overwhelmed and grateful that we have a piece of history," said Lamont Smith, 29, the English teacher and debate coach at Rice High School. The school numbers 345 students in grades six to 12.

"I think it is necessary for us to focus on it and bring that into history," Smith said.

School secretary Terri Starnes, 48, said she was surprised at how small the debris was.

"The only reason they saw it was it was smoking," Starnes said.

Starnes said she and her neighbors have shared one feeling: disbelief. Disbelief that the space shuttle could explode and disbelief that a piece of it would land in the driveway of Rice High School, home of the Bulldogs.

"For it to happen so tragically," Starnes's voice trailed off before she smiled sadly. "For history to happen in such a small community."

Scores of residents parked their cars along the frontage road and took pictures of the tile, cordoned off behind yellow crime scene tape. Some held hands while children ran around the front yard of the school.

Steve McCall, recently laid off from Kmart and now driving trucks, took pictures of the tile for his son, Chase, who at 6, isn't even sure what an astronaut is.

"When he grows up we'll say, 'You were there,' " McCall said.

Here, it wasn't twisted metal -- it was human

HEMPHILL, TEXAS -- The body parts fell from the sky, fragments of flesh and bone landing in pastures and woods, in and around this tiny town.

By Sunday, a simple memorial stood where a torso had landed beside a dirt road. A cross made of two branches had been notched and hammered together. At its base, a small bouquet of pink, purple and yellow flowers against the brown soil and tall pines.

Kneeling before the gnarled memorial in the waning hours of daylight was Doug Cummmings. He had climbed into his Chevy pickup truck and headed south from his home in Texarkana, 180 miles away, passing tiny orange flags dotting the country roads, markers of strange metal objects that might have come from space.

Why? He didn't know.

"I really don't know what I was looking for," said Cummings, 43. He snapped photos from a single-use camera he had picked up on the way down.

The owner of a truck and trailer repair store, Cummings said he was drawn to Hemphill, which was quickly becoming known locally as ground zero for falling body parts.

"I'm really at a loss of words," he said.

In the center of town, where the population stands at 1,106, Kelly Broussard knew exactly why she had come with her children and father: remnants.

"I guess it's just adventure and you want to find the pieces," said the nurses' aide, who lives 100 miles south.

Starr Funeral Home, being the only funeral parlor in town, was where the bits of corpses were temporarily housed until federal officials carted them to laboratories.

"It's surreal," said owner Byron Starr.

In Hemphill, flags are on many properties, and all were at half staff.

"It's a national tragedy," Starr said, "and there tend to be a lot of flagwavers here."

Volunteers unite: 'It's a just cause and they need the help'

SAN AUGUSTINE, TEXAS -- The men and women started arriving in a vast parking lot in the center of town at 7 a.m. Sunday, when the air was nippy and their spirits high.

It was a massive call for help that brought hundreds here from across east Texas -- volunteer firefighters, teenage boys from a Christian academy and concerned residents forgoing church -- to comb the surrounding area for anything that might have been missed by residents.

It is a huge job. The area is sparsely populated and some areas are overgrown with brush.

"This is snake season," warned Kenneth Johnson, with the Laneville Volunteer Fire Department, 80 miles north.

The risk was worth it, he said. "Everybody gave up everything just to be a part of history."

Others came with a personal mission.

"All we want is to bring the families something back to bury," said Tracey Horning, 42, with the San Augustine Volunteer Fire Department. "I wouldn't care about getting anything else from the shuttle."

Others, were here just to be good citizens. And because in the American Bible Belt, a place where the joke goes that there's a church behind every tree, pitching in is just what you do, they said.

"This is a very patriotic part of the country," said Lou Stagg, 57, a retired U.S. marshal. "We still believe in God and country."

Randall Switzer, transportation coordinator for International Alert Academy, a paramilitary school for boys in Big Sandy, 130 miles northwest of San Augustine, shuttled 140 students to the lot by 7 a.m.

"It's a just cause and they need the help," Switzer said.

They had been told they were needed to traipse across fields and through thick woods, keeping their eyes glued to the ground. Don't touch anything you find, they were warned again and again. The items will be marked and later removed by officials.

Getting people to come out for the assignment was easy. It was organizing and dispatching them that proved difficult.

Three hours later, many volunteers were still leaning on four-wheel drives, awaiting assignments.

To protect ... and to wait

JACKSONVILLE, TEXAS -- James Campbell sits in his office and waits.

On Saturday, the Cherokee County sheriff's ninth anniversary in office, Campbell had called in every deputy and dispatcher on the payroll to help handle the shuttle debris that came raining down.

He sent deputies to guard the bigger pieces and those along busier streets.

And now, he waits.

"We're just waiting for FEMA," Campbell said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing the debris recovery.

Campbell and his workers have been unable to keep watch over the more than 160 pieces of confirmed debris, and NASA might lose a few to souvenir seekers.

"We think we've had some people pick some stuff up," Campbell said. The biggest piece in Cherokee County, he said, is a 7-foot-by-7-foot sheet that fell deep in the woods. He's guarding it.

"We think that might be a wing," Campbell said. No one in his county has been hurt by debris or toxic exposure.

On Sunday afternoon, the windswept city of 1950s-style architecture appeared, like Campbell, to be waiting for something. Few cars were in the streets, and few of Jacksonville's 13,000 residents ambled about the mostly brick buildings downtown.

"We're just waiting for FEMA," Campbell repeated.

For some, curiosity takes over

SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA -- John Hughes just couldn't help himself.

He was work at his fiberglass factory when he was stopped by the noise. Hughes walked outside to watch contrails corkscrew overhead.

He heard his uncle say, "God almighty," turned to see a giant ball 4 feet across float to the earth like a parachute.

"I was telling everyone who was with me, 'You know, we really shouldn't be touching it,' but I just couldn't stand it," said Hughes, 34.

"Like curiosity killed the cat. It wasn't hot, there were no heat shimmers, we put our hand above it and then we touched it and there was nothing. We kicked at it a little bit; the thing doesn't weigh as much as 4 gallons of milk.

"At first I was saying this is probably the coolest thing I have ever seen. Then we found out what it was and it was like, this is not the coolest thing I have seen anymore. It's too sad."

About 135 miles to the south, a fisherman from De Ridder, La., Elbie Bradley, reported hearing a falling object splash into the Toledo Bend Reservoir, which straddles the border.

"Before the piece came down, it sounded like the start of a big motor without an exhaust on it," he said. "I thought it was an airplane that hit the lake."

-- Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Strength to cope found in religion

PALESTINE, TEXAS -- When Beverly Farris saw the streams of smoke trailing the Columbia space shuttle, her thoughts turned to Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut.

"I thought, 'Your life is going to end over Palestine,"' the retired history teacher, still dressed in her green church choir robe, remarked Sunday.

"That's just kind of meaningful," said Farris, 57.

In Palestine, a small notch on the Bible Belt that is home to some 75 churches, countless pieces of shuttle debris rained down over the vast, brown flatlands.

Every few miles along the rural highways that connect Palestine to other Texas towns, state troopers huddled over the slivers they were guarding until NASA showed up.

A decontamination unit at the Palestine Regional Medical Center scrubbed down at least 25 people who handled the debris on Saturday, unaware of or unfazed by its possible toxicity.

On Sunday, residents turned off the television replays of final moments long enough to attend church and pray for the families of the seven astronauts.

Pat Patterson had planned to continue his children's sermon series on the five senses at First Presbyterian Church. In a voice choked with emotion, he spoke of the tragedy.

"I know in my heart that if those seven people were able to speak right now, I know each of them would tell you that it is well in their soul," said Patterson, 71.

The Palestine Herald-Press on Sunday looked to the comfort of the Psalms in its Bible quote of the day: "I will say of the Lord. He is my refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust."

Inside the newspaper office, police scanners crackled with new reports of recovered debris.

The white steeple of the Presbyterian church rose above the red brick antique dealers and downtown coffeeshops, where streets are named after trees like Oak, Elm and Sycamore. Inside, pastor Jeff Cover tried to articulate the thoughts of his small-town flock.

He bowed his head: "Gracious Lord, today and yesterday we have been reminded that the world comes to our doorstep."

In the water, looking ... looking ... looking

SABINE NATIONAL FOREST, TEXAS -- The reports came from several people who were on the reservoir, fishing or sitting by the docks.

A piece of shuttle debris the size of a small car had thundered into the lake that connects Louisiana with Texas.

It was Billy Williford's job to find it. The president of a voluntary recovery team in Jaspar had scraped bodies off pavement from aircraft accidents. He had gone to find the bloated bodies of drowning victims.

Usually, he had a pretty good idea of where to look and what he would find.

But nothing was normal Sunday for Williford, the owner of an air conditioning repair shop 35 miles away. Not the type of things he was searching for, not the imprecise information he had to rely on, not the haphazard organization of legions of volunteers.

The first problem was that Willington had only general coordinates for the object.

"We're just looking, just looking," he said slowly.

From the bow of the 24-foot bay boat, Williford prodded the choppy waters using a stick with a hook on the end, hoping to clank against metal.

"It's getting frustrating," his partner, Gary House, also a member of the Jasper County Emergency Corps, said as he watched from a nearby motorboat.

For hours they searched beneath hazy skies as fishermen in bobby boats dreamed of bass. The water was too shallow, about 5 feet, to hide such an object, House said.

Finally, a helicopter appeared that was supposed to help them spot the darkened shape. The half-dozen men on the two boats watched as the aircraft soared hundreds of feet away, never approaching.

There was no way to contact it.

"We can't talk to them," House said. 'We don't have common frequencies."

But I swear it's a piece of the shuttle ...

ATHENS, TEXAS -- Zipped inside a plastic freezer bag are the fruits of the Athens Fire Department's search for shuttle debris: a rock, a chunk of plastic foam and the cardboard lining of a roll of masking tape.

After news reports that this town 17,000 was in the shuttle's wake, the good citizens of Athens dutifully reported pieces of debris they've found strewn around the roads, in yards and even on top of their homes.

Trouble is, the closest piece of genuine shuttle rubble is 10 miles south of this town.

"It's the litter patrol," said firefighter Tommy Jackson, 24. He and his fellow firefighters answered 10 trash calls on Saturday and three on Sunday.

"They found a mud flap out on the loop that someone insisted was part of the space shuttle," Jackson said.

One Athens resident reported a piece of reflective metal on top of his roof and begged firefighters to take a look.

"We got there and it turned out to be a shingle. How a shingle got on the roof, I don't know," deadpanned firefighter Bobby Calder, 32.

Calder and Jackson said they don't mind the calls from people who are just trying to help. What bothers them is the person who they suspect hauled a 200-pound tub of lead out to the road and called in a debris sighting.

"Someone had placed it there as a practical joke," Jackson said. Had the giant hunk of lead fallen from the sky, "There would have been a huge crater in the ground."

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