Firefighters to seek 'Columbia' clues
© St. Petersburg Times
SEFFNER -- When Hector Castillo watched the space shuttle Columbia break apart three weeks ago, he never imagined he would help clean up the debris.
But Castillo, a captain with the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department, is ready to help.
"They ask me to go, I just do it," Castillo said. "It's like being on a fire -- you ask me to go to the roof, I do it; you ask me to go through a door, I do it. Whatever needs doing."
Castillo is one of six workers from the Division of Forestry's Lakeland District -- which includes Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties -- heading to Texas to search for scattered shuttle debris. They hope to ease the burden on overworked local authorities.
Four of the workers are volunteer firefighters in east Hillsborough County. Two are forestry officials from Polk County.
"I just thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Patricia Wigh, a driver and engineer at the Bloomingdale-Valrico Volunteer Fire Department. "It's a chance to go out and help your country."
In all, two 20-member teams from Florida will travel to search sites in rural Texas, adding to the 45 teams from other states already helping out.
Some of the firefighters have mixed emotions about the assignment.
"I didn't really think they'd send us for that. I figured it would be more of an upper-government sort of thing," said Lt. Kevin Ogden of Bloomingdale-Valrico. "I'm excited that I'm getting to go, but it's sad that it has to be for that."
The workers leave Sunday morning for a 14-day shift in Corsicana, a city about an hour south of Dallas. After a day off, they may be asked to work a second 14-day shift. Each day, they'll work 12 hours and sleep in tents in the forest.
"Bags are packed, we're ready to go," Castillo said.
"We're anxious," said firefighter Patrick Ritson, also of Seffner-Mango. "It's something I want to do."
It's not the first time local rescue workers have been dispatched to the site of a national disaster.
The Division of Forestry maintains a list of volunteers willing to serve in the event of a large-scale emergency. Last year, five firefighters, including Castillo, battled large wildfires in Utah.
This search mission is unlike any the firefighters have worked on, but officials say they are qualified to help.
"We respond to these kinds of disasters all the time, so our personnel have already been through a lot of training for this kind of thing," said Jim Brenner, fire management administrator for the Division of Forestry.
Many of the skills valuable to a firefighter will be helpful in retrieving lost pieces of the shuttle, Castillo said.
"We've been out in the woods before, so anything out of the ordinary, we're going to see it," he said. "If something fell through the trees, we'd see the line where it knocked stuff down."
Some firefighters think a swift recovery of the debris is necessary so that NASA can determine the cause of the disaster, which might allow the agency to resume space travel and retrieve astronauts stranded on the International Space Station.
NASA spokesman Michael Curie said NASA and recovery authorities are working quickly to determine a cause, but said the astronauts are in no immediate danger because the space station is outfitted with a Russian crew escape vehicle.
It's likely the firefighters will find some shuttle wreckage. Ritson said more than 300 pieces have been found near Corsicana.
The search for shuttle debris won't be as dangerous as fighting wildfires, but it won't be a picnic. Several search crews have caught colds and the flu, and some workers have sprained ankles and knees.
"We've been watching the Weather Channel here, and it's supposed to be very rainy and very cold," Wigh said. "They just told us to be prepared for the wetness."
Ritson said the experience could be even more difficult emotionally.
"I don't really want to find something like a patch, something that one of those guys wore," he said. "But that's why we're going out there."
It will all be worth it, though, if they can find the piece that helps unlock the mystery of what happened to the Columbia.
"We'll help give the families that were affected ease, because they'll know exactly what happened, and how, and why," Ogden said. "It'll help put them at rest."
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