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Divers search silty lake for pieces of debris

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

HEMPHILL, Texas -- After being frustrated for several days by bad weather, divers finally went into a reservoir Monday in search of large pieces of Columbia that were believed to have splashed into the water after the shuttle disintegrated.

"This is a lot better for the divers. They're out there. They have some spots to check. They should be able to do something," said Gene Davenport of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Searchers have focused on the 75-mile-long manmade Toledo Bend Reservoir since the day Columbia broke up Feb. 1. Witnesses reported debris the size of a small car hitting the lake in a spot where the water is about 100 feet deep.

Using sonar and a robotic underwater camera, searchers previously identified several objects on the lake bottom that they wanted to examine. But the bottom is covered with silt and fallen pine trees.

The lake is on the Louisiana line near Hemphill, where the shuttle's nose cone was found a week ago.

Meanwhile, NASA said it had determined that a piece of broken wing found in east Texas was from the space shuttle's troubled left side. Also, searchers found more human remains in Sabine County southeast of Nacogdoches. Sheriff Tommy Maddox refused to disclose the location or give a more precise description.

About 700 volunteers -- about 1,000 fewer than over the weekend -- fanned out Monday, said Red Anderson, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

In Nacogdoches County on Sunday, three large pieces of the shuttle, including one that appears to be a hatch door, were found by searchers.

Debris is being taken to sprawling storage area at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana before it is sent on to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

One of the strongest pieces of the shuttle, a 10-foot-long hinge-point of a cargo bay, was so badly twisted that investigators said it looked as if it had been in an explosion.

A Texas law enforcement officer was arrested Monday on federal charges he stole pieces of the shuttle.

Harrison County Constable Robert Hagan II, 45, became the third person charged with looting shuttle debris that dropped onto the countryside.

Hagan was charged with theft of government property for allegedly taking a piece of tile and other debris while helping with the recovery effort Feb. 1 and 2 in the Nacogdoches area.

Two photographers were allowed to tour the storage area Monday. A videotape of the 45-minute tour included images of the bent metal, along with pictures of part of the fuselage, a landing gear strut and the door from the right main landing gear.

Long tables are lined with pieces of debris. Each is being wrapped in clear, heavy plastic and tagged with details on its size, its material and where it was found.

The first of three truckloads of Columbia debris are expected to arrive at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday. They will be taken to a 50,000-square-foot hangar, where they will be assembled in an effort to find out why the shuttle broke up, killing the seven astronauts as they returned home.

Later this week, members of the NASA-appointed board investigating the disaster will probably interview NASA managers and visit the facility where the shuttle's thermal protection tiles are made.


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