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Shuttle Disaster

Schools closed while teams test campuses for toxicity

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

LUFKIN, Texas -- Gary Holcomb spent Monday walking along the roofs of Naches High School and Naches Elementary School, his eyes straining to catch any piece of space shuttle debris that federal cleanup crews might have missed.

The Naches schools superintendent found none, and likely will allow students back onto the playground today.

"We were assured that we were okay," Holcomb said. "I've personally been on every roof."

Hundreds of students in at least 15 districts took an unscheduled holiday Monday or were kept inside while federal environmental officials rushed to scour their playgrounds for the possibly toxic pieces of Columbia debris.

Starting today, Environmental Protection Agency workers will focus on the task of collecting and cataloging thousands of pieces of debris, some as small as coins, that lie scattered across 33 Texas counties and parts of Louisiana.

The largely rural terrain includes state and national forests and large reservoirs.

So far, 12,000 pieces have been recovered, and residents along the debris path continue to report more. The reports and responses are being coordinated at the Pitser Garrison Civic Center in Lufkin, command central for the region.

Nearly 500 Texas National Guardsmen will be directed from the site, as will officials from other agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard.

Eventually, the pieces will be shipped to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where they were being collected in a sprawling hangar.

The goal is to try to reconstruct what's left of Columbia, and establish a sequence of how each part peeled off during the shuttle's re-entry.

On Monday, debris and human remains from the destroyed shuttle began arriving at the base "in everything from helicopters to rental cars," NASA spokesman Steve Nesbitt said.

Officials said recovering the remains of Columbia's seven crew members was a top priority.

Authorities confirmed about 15 sites where human remains have been found in Nacogdoches County. Some remains have been recovered in rural east Texas, and forensics experts say the astronauts' remains could be genetically identified despite the orbiter's disintegration 39 miles overhead.

Douglass schools superintendent Lowell McCuistion watched Monday as uniformed EPA officials combed his schoolyard for nearly two hours with a machine that tests for toxicity and then bagged all the debris. All 340 Douglass School Indians, in grades from kindergarten through 12, had the day off.

McCuistion said he isn't enjoying the publicity the Columbia tragedy brought his Nacogdoches County school, but hopes his students will learn something from the experience.

"We wish the astronauts were with their families," McCuistion said. "I feel that Feb. 1 will be a date that the students will remember forever." Students are expected to return to school today.

By midmorning Monday, Chireno schools superintendent Wes Jones was still waiting for the environmental team. He got a call that they'd left Douglass and were on the way. Jones said the fear that younger students could find pieces of shuttle debris and put them in their mouths led him to quickly cancel classes.

"We found some very small pieces that looked like the insulation foam," Jones said. When students return today, Jones said the school will have a ceremony.

"We're going to have a small assembly in the morning or have the teachers talk to their students," Jones said.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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