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 Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC with previous permission of the Houston

Experts hope debris offers clues to cause
Remains found over wide swath
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

A helmet, believed to have come from the space shuttle Columbia, lies in
a field near near Lufkin, Texas, Sunday.  
LUFKIN -- Piece by piece, the remains of Columbia are being tagged for a
macabre autopsy, one that officials of America's space program hope will
yield clues, if not answers. 

There is little likelihood that all the pieces of the ill-fated orbiter,
strewn over a 60-by-250-mile swath of East Texas and Louisiana, will be
found. But, added to data collected from the shuttle's last minutes, the
debris could become key to determining what caused the accident. 

"We are hopeful that there are a few clues to be found from the evidence
we're finding on the ground," Ron Dittemore, the space shuttle program
manager, said Sunday. "We hope we will find what is necessary to help us
solve why Columbia was destroyed." 

A sizable amount of debris had been found by sundown Sunday, some of it
lying on city streets, in schoolyards, in dense pine woods and in meadows
and pastures, but much of it was in fragments no larger than a quarter or
charred or crumpled almost beyond recognition. 

A piece of landing gear, maybe. A uniform patch bearing the names of
Columbia's crew. A flight helmet. A portion of a door. The ubiquitous
silica tiles, 20,000 of them, giving the shuttle's skin the texture of
balsa wood, shredded and scattered by wind and velocity. 

State officials said Sunday that debris had been found in 32 Texas
counties, but the heaviest impact lay near the Louisiana border. 

In five counties -- Sabine, San Augustine, Nacogdoches, Anderson and
Cherokee -- nearly 1,500 debris sites had been tagged and "there were
multiple amounts of debris at each site," said state Sen. Todd Staples,
who spent a portion of Sunday afternoon in a conference call with the
sheriffs of those counties. 

The areas closest to the Sabine River also turned up the most gruesome
remains: a torso, a forearm, a bone, possibly from a leg, and others that
have not been identified by the FBI. 

NASA said body parts from some of the astronauts have been identified,
but in most cases they apparently were small pieces. 

David Briggs, who lives in Chinquapin east of Lufkin, was awakened
Saturday morning by a noise "that sounded like a helicopter on the roof."

Shortly afterward, his neighbor called and told him that debris had
fallen at her antique store on Highway 103. On the way to check it out,
he ran over something in the roadway but thought little of it until he
was returning home and the object was still there. 

"I used a stick to move it to the side of the road," he said. 

It appeared to be the right forearm of "a dainty female," he said.
Attached to it was a piece of orange cloth. A shred of jumpsuit, Briggs
thought. He notified the sheriff's office. 

"It is horrible," said state Rep. Jim McReynolds, who came to the federal
command center in Lufkin's Civic Center to discuss what searchers were
turning up in the area. Remains of the astronauts will be taken to Dover
Air Force Base, where the bodies of the Challenger shuttle crew were
taken 17 years ago. 

Finding everything that fell out of the sky Saturday morning is a
daunting effort because this section of East Texas is not a hospitable
repository for critical evidence. It is densely forested and thinly
populated and flecked with lakes and reservoirs where some debris is
believed to have disappeared. 

The 310,000 acres of the Sabine and Angelina National Forests contain few
roads and only scattered hiking trails. 

But law enforcement and health officials believe finding as much of the
shuttle's debris, some of which could be contaminated with toxic
substances, is essential. 

In Sabine County on Sunday, more than 200 police officers and volunteer
firefighters walked through thick woods, a meager start in covering the
county's 250 square miles. 

More than 150 sites have been identified there, and Sheriff Tom Maddox
said two large pieces of scrap -- 4 or 5 feet in diameter -- were found. 

"We don't know what parts they are," he said. "We just know they are from
the shuttle." 

Billy Smith, emergency management coordinator for Jasper and Sabine
counties, said there is no way to predict how long the search will go on.

"It may be years before all of them ... some are so minute you may never
find all of them," he said. 

The work of local searchers is to find the debris and mark the spot so
the material can be picked up later by officially designated teams. 

"There are only two civil support teams of the Texas National Guard that
are authorized to remove debris," Staples said. 

Federal agencies are organizing more removal teams, but schools
throughout the region are scheduled to open today with potentially toxic
shuttle pieces cluttering their property. 

At least 35 school districts, encompassing more than 100 campuses, lie in
the heavy impact area, he said, and Gov. Rick Perry has ordered schools
to check for debris on campuses before allowing classes to resume. 

"Clearing the schools is the No. 1 priority," he said. 

Until all the debris is removed, each site has to be guarded. By Sunday
evening, according to DPS officials, 265 state troopers had been sent to
the area, and another 61 were expected to arrive today. 

However, Staples said, 300 National Guardsmen were being deployed to
guard the debris, leaving the troopers free for other duties. 

By the end of the weekend, Lufkin, Nacogdoches and other small
communities along the shuttle's glide path to Florida had the faint look
of a sprawling disaster scene. 

Military uniforms were as common as logging garb, and motel parking lots
were compounds of squad cars. Salvation Army trucks dispensed food and
beverages around public buildings, helicopters clattered overhead and
satellite broadcast trucks formed cities within the cities. 

In Nacogdoches, the media parade that began Saturday with hundreds of
news reporters pouring into town grew to a full-blown Mardi Gras by
Sunday afternoon. 

As the media horde grew, security around debris sites was tightened. 

On Saturday, onlookers approached mangled shuttle parts left lying on
roadsides and in yards. A day later, not only did Nacogdoches County
officials stop broadcasting details of new crash sites, but they also
barred reporters from following a university team cataloging the

The pop appeal of the shuttle debris faded as well. Where locals and
travelers had lined police barriers to view small metal shards a day
before, on Sunday, only National Guardsmen stood watch by carnations and
flags left at makeshift memorials. Church marquees became the medium of
choice for public expression of sorrow. 

Also Sunday, several astronauts appeared at the Lufkin command center. 

Chris Ferguson, dressed in a NASA jumpsuit, talked briefly with reporters
but would not say what he and the others were doing here. 

"We want to bring some honor and dignity to the astronaut corps," he

So do the searchers, who may spend weeks trying to find what's left of
the Columbia Seven. 

Chronicle reporters Zanto Peabody, James Kimberly, Bill Murphy and Dale
Lezon in East Texas contributed to this story. 

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