Recovery teams locate space shuttle's nose cone

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

HEMPHILL, Texas -- Searchers found the nose cone of the space shuttle Columbia buried deep in a thick pine forest near the Louisiana border, officials said Monday night.

"It's reasonably intact," said Warren Zehner, a senior coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing collection of shuttle debris.

Zehner estimated the shuttle piece weighed about 500 pounds. He provided no other details but it was believed to be one of the largest pieces of the shuttle found thus far.

Since the shuttle broke up 39 miles over Texas on Saturday, search teams have hunted down remains and debris in the rivers and woods of Louisiana and Texas -- including a 6-to-7-foot chunk of the shuttle's cabin found in one rural county. Environmental and explosives experts, along with NASA officials, bagged up wreckage on Monday and transported it to airports now serving as evidence warehouses.

By late Monday afternoon, some 12,000 pieces of debris had been collected in the region.

"It was a very, very good day. This was probably one of the best days we've had," said Billy Smith, emergency management coordinator for Jasper, Newton and Sabine counties.

About 10 searchers emerged from the woods with bags full of debris, including metal objects. They filled a bed of a pickup truck with debris. A crew was expected to arrive at the site today to dig the nose cone out.

"We are collecting material that we find on the ground even as small as a quarter," said Gary Moore, a regional coordinator for the EPA. "Obviously, you're going to get to a point where you can't collect every single speck."

The agency is using an airplane equipped with infrared sensors that can spot debris that might be tainted with hazardous chemicals, as well as a mobile unit on the ground to determine whether any shuttle wreckage is emitting toxic chemicals.

Divers plied the murky waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana state line on Monday, scouting for what authorities believe is a car-size chunk of the shuttle. Nothing was found, although divers were expected to return Tuesday with sonar equipment.

NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said NASA was particularly interested in any pieces that may have fallen from Columbia as far west as New Mexico, Arizona or California. The FBI was checking reports of possible debris in Arizona.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Dittemore said, referring to tracking bits of the 6-by-6 inch thermal tiles that covered Columbia. "But that is not going to keep us from looking for it."

Recovery teams gathered Monday at a federal command post in Lufkin to be dispatched to counties across the state, said Sue Kennedy, emergency management coordinator for Nacogdoches County. A seven-member squad in Nacogdoches removed 25 pieces of debris from the grounds at Douglass School, whose 340 students in kindergarten through 12th grade stayed home for the day. They then moved on to another public school before heading to Stephen F. Austin State University.

Recovered debris and human remains began arriving at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Monday "in everything from helicopters to rental cars," NASA spokesman Steve Nesbitt said.

NASA examiners and the independent investigative team headed by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. have set up shop at the base in a room with a large map, using pushpins to mark the thousands of debris sites. The map was color-coded according to the size of the particles.

The goal is to try to reconstruct what's left of Columbia, and establish a sequence of how each part peeled off during the shuttle's ill-fated journey home.

The recovery effort is daunting due to the size and scope of the debris field. It stretched west to east 380 miles from Eastland, Texas, to Alexandria, La., and north-south 230 miles from Sulphur Springs, Texas, to metropolitan Houston.

Louisiana state police confirmed more than two dozen chunks of debris in 11 different parishes. Authorities recovered a 3-by-4-foot metal panel with small holes from a thicket in Sabine Parish, on the Texas border. Vernon Parish chief deputy Calvin Turner said four chunks of metal were found in the parish

"We'll be finding stuff months down the road. I'd say hunting season is when people will be picking stuff up, or we'll never find it at all," Turner said.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry said wreckage had been found in 33 counties sprawling 28,000 square miles of landscape -- 10 percent of the entire state, and an area larger than West Virginia.

The area where wreckage was being found expanded westward Monday, said Michael Kostelnik, NASA deputy associate administrator. One debris collection center was opened at the former Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, 180 miles northwest of the Lufkin command center.

A huge section of cabin discovered in a woods east of Nacogdoches. County Sheriff Thomas Kerss would not disclose the exact location or provide details.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: