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Shuttle Disaster

Remains taken for identification

NASA says it believes remains from each astronaut have been found. Also, the space agency continues to search for shuttle debris.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2003


Flag-draped cases containing the remains of Columbia's astronauts arrived Wednesday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the same military mortuary that dealt with the 1986 Challenger explosion and the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.

More body parts and space shuttle fragments continued to turn up in Texas and Louisiana, as did the first arrests for looting. Meanwhile NASA sent investigators to California to inspect debris that might be part of one of Columbia's wings.

Suggestions that Columbia was losing parts before it disintegrated over Texas on Saturday picked up credence with the discovery of pictures shot by California astronomers and a home video from Arizona that show objects falling off the spacecraft.

On the Arizona video, shot near Flagstaff, someone on the ground is heard saying, "Look at the chunk coming off of it. What the heck is that?"

Seven astronauts died in the Columbia disaster as the shuttle broke apart 16 minutes before its scheduled landing in Florida. At Dover, the military's largest mortuary, forensic experts will attempt to identify their remains for eventual burial.

A C-141 military cargo plane carrying the remains from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana touched down just before 2:40 p.m. at Dover. Aboard the plane were seven coffinlike cases, symbolizing Columbia's seven crew members. Six cases were draped with American flags, the seventh with the flag of Israel in honor of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Remains "will be released to their families as soon as possible," NASA deputy administrator Frederick Gregory said at a news conference.

Spokesman Bob Jacobs said Wednesday evening that NASA believes remains from each of the astronauts have been found. He added that Ramon's remains have been positively identified. He was unsure how that was done, but said NASA had forensic teams in the field.

"We're confident that we have seven sets of remains," he said.

Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut. His family is forbidden by Jewish law and tradition to conduct a funeral until his remains are available for burial. Israeli air force Gen. Rani Falk said the remains of Ramon would be flown back to the Jewish state on Sunday. The family will conduct a funeral there Tuesday -- a day's delay because Ramon's son celebrates his birthday on Monday, Falk said.

So far some 12,000 pieces of debris have been recovered, but a NASA official said Wednesday that none of the pieces provides solid answers for why the shuttle broke up.

"We do not have any red-tag items," said Ron Dittemore, shuttle program manager, referring to items that engineers have identified as crucial to the investigation into the cause.

He said those items would include parts of the left wing, data recorders and certain pieces of insulation and tiles.

NASA is particularly interested in debris that tumbled to earth in California and Arizona because it could provide clues to the earliest stages of the disaster. Columbia's sensors showed a sharp rise in temperature as the spacecraft headed over land from the Pacific.

"If we found debris in California, Arizona, New Mexico along the ground path, certainly that would be a significant finding to us, and the particular debris would also point us in a direction," Dittemore said Wednesday in Houston.

NASA was calculating where debris falling from such a high altitude and at such high speed would land. The potential footprint was large and "it's going to take us some time" to search, Dittemore said.

The shuttle was composed of about 2-million parts, many of which shattered into pieces as small as a nickel. Recovery teams are using global positioning system satellites to determine the location of each piece of debris so the field can be mapped.

NASA hopes to use that information to develop computer models to simulate the disaster. The models would track each piece of debris back in time to the moment it was shed from the orbiter.

As more than 1,000 people searched through forests and cow pastures in rain and sleet hunting debris, two Texas residents were charged with theft of government property, accused of keeping shuttle pieces they found.

Merrie Hipp, 43, of Henderson, was charged with stealing government property on Saturday: a shuttle circuit board.

Bradley Justin Gaudet, 23, of Nacogdoches, was charged with stealing a piece of thermal insulating fabric. Gaudet is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Both appeared in court Wednesday handcuffed and with shackles around their waists. They pleaded innocent and were freed on their own recognizance.

Neither defendant would comment, but their attorneys said both were unnerved by the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

"The issue here is the thermodynamics of the space shuttle and any piece of that is important to this investigation," said U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby. "No one knows which piece will unravel the mystery."

Authorities said they are conducting at least 17 investigations into reports of people taking shuttle debris as souvenirs.

As teams searched for clues across the world's largest accident scene, their job was further complicated by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of items that are not from the shuttle that have been reported by well-intentioned members of the public.

In Louisiana, where searchers have found hundreds of items from the shuttle, sheriff's deputies have checked out animal bones and burned rocks. A suspected piece of shuttle debris was found to be a truck mudflap.

In Shreveport, communications officer Tracy Dossett said an elderly woman ("Bless her heart") called 911 after finding egg yolk on her porch. Were there eggs on the Columbia? she asked.

And in Texas, a team combing the woods was led by a local boy to a Chevy alternator.

In California, local authorities were told to call the Highway Patrol if they found something. But CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said there is not much the agency can do.

"We at the California Highway Patrol are not rocket scientists," he said.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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