Is It Shuttle Debris or Burnt Toast?
Burnt toast, a truck mudflap, egg yolk, a Chevy alternator _ authorities collecting Columbia debris across what may be the world’s largest accident scene are getting lots of calls about ordinary junk.
``It’s easy to speculate. It’s easy to be confused. There is a lot of things laying around the country,″ said NASA spaceflight office deputy Michael Kostelnik.
Since Saturday’s accident, NASA has collected more than 12,000 pieces of space shuttle debris _ from nickel-sized metal pieces to the 500-pound nose cone, as well as body parts, clothing and charred reports.
But at the same time, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of items that are not from the shuttle are being turned in by members of the public, carefully examined by law enforcement officers and then tossed in the trash.
There was a piece of burnt toast in Yuma, Ariz., and a chunk of orange foam that was once a piece of a boat on a central Florida beach.
Some reports of suspected debris have come hundreds of miles from the shuttle’s flight path and the main debris field: A man in the southwestern Georgia town of Cuthbert called state emergency officials when he couldn’t identify a black, featherweight object on his land. A woman in Henderson in northwestern Kentucky found a piece of metal with embossed numbers on her patio; State Police sent a photo to NASA.
Their link _ or lack thereof _ to Columbia remains unknown.
In Louisiana, where searchers have found hundreds of items from the shuttle, sheriff’s deputies have checked out animal bones and burnt 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.
In Texas, a team combing the woods was led by a local boy to a Chevy alternator.
In Arizona, where the FBI responded to at least a dozen reports of charred items that, in the end, were not shuttle debris, Gov. Janet Napolitano pleaded for common sense.
``Let’s not overestimate this,″ she said. ``Every piece of burned metal or ash that is found in Arizona over the next two weeks is not necessarily from the shuttle.″
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.
Marshall said law enforcement agents are taking a look at each item, and unless they can definitely identify it as something other than Columbia debris (like the scrap of ordinary sheet metal found near Antioch, Calif., or the old pieces of machinery in Inyo County), they are passing it on to NASA.
At Johnson Space Center, NASA spokesman Mike Curie asked the public to err on the side of caution. ``We’d rather go through 1,000 pieces of stuff that are not part of the shuttle to find one that is,″ he said.
``It could be the most important piece that’s been found,″ he said. ``You never know.″
That was what California State Parks lifeguard supervisor Alex Peabody figured Monday when a woman walking barefoot near the tideline called 911 to report an unusual piece of metal on the beach.
Peabody, using medical examination gloves, put the tube (``It looked like aluminum,″ he said) in a plastic bag, put the bag in a metal box and locked the box in a shed.
On a nearby beach on Tuesday, just about everyone looking down was finding suspicious items.
``What do you think?″ asked Grace Wilkins of Bonny Doon. She held up a twisted, melted 2-inch piece of metal.
A few yards away, visiting Santa Fe, N.M., Councilman David Pfeffer said he noticed some tile.
``It’s probably bathroom tile,″ he said. ``Who knows?″
``Dad, I don’t think it’s shuttle tile,″ said his daughter Elana. ``It looks pretty worn by the ocean.″
Peabody said he would hand any suspicious items over to federal authorities to come pick it up.
``I’m a lifeguard,″ he said. ``I’m not a specialist in shuttle parts.″