Investigators Track Down Shuttle Debris
Feb. 03, 2003
NACOGDOCHES, Texas (AP) _ Hundreds of investigators with expertise in airline accidents, engineering and forensics converged on Texas and Louisiana to join in the painstaking job of retrieving pieces of the space shuttle Columbia from a swath of forested country turned disaster area.
As inundated local authorities scrambled to track and guard a sprawling debris field, NASA established command posts in Lufkin, Texas, and at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to oversee recovery and examination of the wreckage.
In Texas, about 300 people from 30 agencies, including the FBI, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Transportation Safety Board and the Texas Department of Public Safety, will be dispatched to collect thousands of pieces as small as a pebble and as big as a pickup truck.
Once in hand, the wreckage will be trucked to the Louisiana base, where engineers with shuttle contractor United Space Alliance will sift through it in search of clues to what caused Columbia to break apart over Texas on Saturday morning just minutes before landing.
The intention is to try to reconstruct what is left of Columbia, and establish a sequence of how each part peeled off during its high-speed re-entry into the atmosphere.
The salvage operation alone is a formidable task, covering an area that stretches from the rolling hills of East Texas to a suburb of New Orleans, where authorities found what could be insulation from Columbia.
Louisiana state police confirmed more than a dozen chunks of debris in eight different parishes.
However, the search for wreckage has focused on Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry said 33 counties _ from north of Dallas all the way to the Gulf Coast _ had reported finding debris.
The heart of the operation is in the piney woods of East Texas, a region known for its thick forests of pines and oaks, expansive farm land and cow pastures. The area is home to four national forests, covering almost 700,000 acres, and two reservoirs that together span about 300,000 acres.
While the region is a sanctuary for hunters, boaters and anglers, its challenging terrain makes the job facing Columbia recovery teams that much more difficult.
``This is forest _ dense forest,'' said James Kroll, director of the Emergency Geospacial Mapping Center at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. ``There is no way to describe how many pieces there are and how spread over the landscape they are.
``Ten years from now, folks are going to be walking around the woods and finding stuff.''
In Nacogdoches County alone, authorities have logged more than 1,200 confirmed debris sites. State troopers and local authorities are manning 130 spots, alongside two-lane highways, restaurants and ranches, to ensure curious scavengers don't make off with any evidence.
Though local officials had too few bodies to protect every piece discovered, they said NASA had provided a list of priorities: anything that could contain data or resembles computer circuitry, or potentially radioactive materials.
Kroll has 10 technicians fanned out across the county using remote global-positioning satellites to log the precise location of wreckage for a debris map that could aid recovery teams.
Among the items discovered so far: a car-size chunk that splashed into Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana state line, a 7- to 8-foot door-like fragment, what resembles part of a windshield and a 5- to 6-foot-long object authorities suspect could be part of the landing gear.
In San Augustine, just east of Nacogdoches, Larry Epps placed a 55-gallon barrel to protect a piece of metal that landed in his hay meadow.
``If it hit me, my wife would have been a widow,'' he said of the hollow gray object that resembles a tire. He later found what appears to be a circuit board about 100 yards away from his front yard and a half dozen 2-by-2-inch metal pieces in his meadow.
Marc Masferrer, editor of The Lufkin Daily News, said a landowner led him to what appeared to be a seat from the shuttle in a pasture 20 miles west of Nacogdoches.
There have been more grim discoveries _ human remains, including a leg, torso, thigh bone and skull. NASA confirmed the remains of some of the seven Columbia astronauts had been recovered.
Through thick woods that are home to wild hogs and bobcats, 75 volunteers and law officers carried out their hunt near Hemphill on the Louisiana line. About 40 feet into the forest, a searcher shouted, ``Hold!'' when he spotted a chunk of metal dangling from a limb.
A volunteer marked it with a red flag.