search for space shuttle debris in East Texas
Circuit Board Fragments on
Observations by Gary E. McKee
February 1st, the space shuttle Columbia was reported missing over Texas. What
had become back-page news - that another shuttle was circling the earth - was
brought to the front page by this horrible event. The marvelous feat of engineering
that propels humans into space was again on people's minds. The importance of
the shuttle to Texas has been symbolized by the fact that the shuttle is on most
Texas license plates. The Columbia was not missing for long when reports of debris
hitting the ground in a several hundred mile long corridor began filtering in.
Search teams were hastily formed in the confusion of the huge impact area.|
Sunday, search teams became more organized.
Monday morning, the
Lufkin newspaper reported that the financially-strapped county of Sabine on the
Louisiana border was having difficulty supplying the resources for searches in
the dense forest. After a call to the Sabine County sheriff's department, I found
that volunteers were being gratefully accepted. I packed my vehicle and headed
east toward the small towns of Bronson and Hemphill.
My first inkling
of what was already in progress was a Black Hawk helicopter crisscrossing the
highway in a search pattern. Small orange flags signifying debris began appearing
in the ditches. The reality of the search started to set in when crosses accompanied
some of the flags.
Glimpses of search teams in the woods and the eerily
abandoned law enforcement vehicles along the road intensified the mood. To see
a Texas Department of Public Safety vehicle, by itself in the middle of nowhere,
was akin to a rider-less horse entering town after the sheriff had ridden it out
Stopping at a small store in Bronson, I verified my directions.
Several of the locals were discussing the mispronunciation of local towns by the
media. These conversations were quite similar to ones I heard when a manhunt was
covered by the media in Central Texas.
Arriving at the local command
center, the Sabine County VFW near Hemphill, I was greeted by the sight of Texas
National Guard trucks staged in the rodeo grounds. The parking lot was crammed
with law enforcement vehicles of all flavors and search crews returning from their
The interior of the large VFW was a colorful mixture of public
service organizations. The reflective uniforms of the U.S. Forest Service, Texas
Forest Service, National Guard, sheriffs, policemen, firemen, DPS, and clothing
of the volunteers presented a rainbow of optimism. The local volunteer fire departments
were well represented and provided invaluable geographical information.
After checking in, I was told to report back at 6:30 the next morning. Lodging
was offered throughout the area: motels gave discounts, churches and schools boarded
searchers, there was even a list of people offering free rooms in their homes.
The next morning, crews were assigned, and after a briefing, we boarded local
Once the crews were dropped off in the field, a surreal
environment was entered. The teams, averaging 20 persons, lined up 20 feet apart
and on command began their journey through the woods. So as not to lose anyone,
the line was kept as straight as possible by keying off the person to their either
left or right, depending upon the situation. People were walking straight into
eight-foot high briar patches and brush with visibility of six feet, crisscrossing
creeks, and, occasionally, strolling in the woods. One person might have a nice
walk, yet the next team member might be enmeshed in a briar tangle, 20 feet away.
It was their job to forge on through without help, as that would destroy the line.
Our team leaders, a Jasper County sheriff and a U.S. Forest Service employee kept
us in line and moving forward.
It was an interesting personal conflict
for everyone. Your natural instincts said to walk around those briars, yet you
had the feeling that if you did, you would miss some remains that had fallen in
the middle of them. When you were cursing your painful situation, the thoughts
of why you were there would minimize those feelings, and you pushed on, ignoring
the rain, thorns and fatigue.
To deal with the mixture of feelings a
searcher felt, humor was employed within the search team as both a stress relief
and to help keep track of where everyone was positioned. The humor was of a goofy
type, not dark humor.
The monotony of several hours of tedious searching
was occasionally broken by the discovery of a piece of the remains. All of us
were glad when it was a piece of the shuttle and not a human remain. No one wanted
to find a human remain, yet we all knew that was the primary reason we were there…
to help bring closure to the families of the astronauts.
the dreamlike circumstances, whenever a piece of the shuttle was found, it was
difficult to comprehend that here, in the middle of these peaceful woods, was
a circuit board that had orbited the earth thousands of times. The board had left
the disintegrating shuttle over North Texas, "flew" hundreds of miles, and landed
softly on a cushion of leaves, with all the appearance of someone laying it there.
At the end of the day, though you could hardly lift your legs, your body
was scratched, and your clothing was soaked with sweat and rain, you had a good
feeling that you had helped out families in need.
I would like to especially
put in a good word for the Sabine County VFW and citizens of Sabine County. These
good people prepared hot food three times a day, for approximately 400 people.
They arrived at 3:30 a.m. to begin cooking breakfast for the search crews heading
out into a strenuous day fighting the brush of East Texas to locate the remains
of STS-107. A huge buffet, catering to every taste, was provided in the evening.
This gave the hungry and cold search crews crawling through the woods something
to truly look forward to. Enough gratitude could never be expressed by the search
The Salvation Army and American Red Cross were great allies of
the searchers. When lunch time approached and you came to a logging road, a truck
would appear with sandwiches and drinks. This resource from the outside world
helped lessen the remoteness that you were experiencing. Handfuls of high carbohydrate
and sugary snack foods were given out by the Salvation Army to keep the people
moving through the woods.
The experience of being in the midst of hundreds
of people responding quickly to a distressing situation, the giving of time, energy
and resources to respond to a very human and urgent event was a great example
of the spirit of America.
© gary e. mckee
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