Recovery of shuttle debris continues in Texas, Louisiana

While pausing with the nation to remember seven heroes, teams searching for their remains and scattered spacecraft pressed ahead Tuesday, counting among their finds a cockpit seat, part of the landing gear and a uniform patch with a Star of David.

The recovery of debris and body parts from the space shuttle Columbia escalated across East Texas and into Louisiana, as authorities added people and tools to the task of piecing together what happened in the sky Saturday morning.

The job ahead seems gargantuan, but searchers are making progress, authorities said.

“We’re very pleased with the way this is going,” said Greg Cohrs, director of the ground search in Sabine County. “This is a huge task.”

Searchers have checked 400 reported debris sites in the county, but have covered less than 5 of the 1,000 square miles targeted for exploration, he said.

The hunt will go on “as long as it takes or as long as NASA asks us to,” said Marcus Beard, a U.S. Forest Service district ranger.

By Tuesday afternoon, more than 12,000 pieces of the obliterated craft had been collected in Texas, said Win Henderson, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

State and federal authorities say shuttle debris has been found in 38 Texas counties in Texas and 19 Louisiana parishes.

The Environmental Protection Agency had gathered 118 bags of debris from 74 Texas locations, Henderson said. The collections include 37 sites in Ellis County. In Louisiana, 22 of 36 locations had been cleared, he said.

And federal authorities were trying to verify reported debris in California, Arizona and Nevada – evidence that could shed light on the breakup’s earliest moments.

Besides finding the Star of David patch – presumably that of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon – Louisiana residents have also found one of the spacecraft’s engines.

Debris sites near 17 Texas schools have been cleared, Henderson said, and classes resumed Tuesday at 31 schools closed because of possible contamination.

All items will end up at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport. Interim collection sites have been established at the former Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth and at National Guard Camp Beauregard near Alexandria, La.

Local residents are joining almost 2,000 Texas National Guard troops and federal, state and local investigators in combing pastures, woods and lakes, authorities said.

The Texas National Guard has deployed 486 soldiers around Nacogdoches and Lufkin while the Texas Department of Public Safety has dispatched more than 350 officers.

Civilian support teams from Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico are helping with the Texas search. Equipment includes 18 helicopters from the Texas Air National Guard, two DPS aircraft and a field kitchen provided by Texas Baptist Men.

Divers from the Texas Department of Public Safety used sonar at Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border, where a fisherman reported the splashdown of a car-sized object on Saturday.

A cellular phone provider is dispatching crews to install temporary towers to respond to a demand for better communications in remote areas.

Early Wednesday, more than three dozen volunteers with global-positioning equipment plan to comb the thick woods in San Augustine County. The tool links with satellites to pinpoint locations and will aid in mapping debris.

More than 40 people responded to a call for help from Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches and San Augustine County officials, said Van Bush, 911 coordinator for the county.

A mobile command post from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has been in Lufkin since Saturday. Workers, equipped with 11 computer terminals, have logged calls on more than 800 debris sites, said airport Fire Chief Alan Black.

In Sabine County, 60 soldiers in camouflage gear made their way down both sides of State Highway 148. They walked through a thicket of bushes and trees, hopped a chicken wire fence into a junkyard of cars and passed a row of abandoned buildings.

The soldiers parked several trucks in front of Murlene Seago’s home. Seago said she wondered how they would find what they were searching for.

“I have a bunch of junk cars behind my house,” she said. “The whole shuttle could be back there and they’d never find it.”

Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss said recovery teams had cleared about 30 debris sites in the county by Tuesday morning. “We have found more key components,” he said, including a cockpit seat mostly intact.

In Sabine County, searchers found more human remains Tuesday, but Sheriff Tom Maddox declined to elaborate.

“Our top priority has been finding human remains,” he said. “We will search until everything is removed.”

More than 800 searchers, supported by aircraft, examined 350 sites located on Monday.

The VFW hall in Hemphill has become Sabine County’s staging center for 46 government agencies and volunteers.

Each day’s crews organize at daybreak and head out by 7:30 a.m. CST. On Tuesday, people stocked the hall’s long tables with food for the searchers. The spread included fried chicken, homemade gumbo, potato salad, chicken spaghetti, barbecue and dozens of cakes and pies. Schoolchildren dropped off sandwiches.

“This is a pretty amazing community here,” said Mike Perry, a sergeant with the Salvation Army in Temple, Texas, who worked in New York after the terrorist attacks.

In San Augustine County, crews began collecting debris for the first time Tuesday, concentrating in an area near State Highway 103 and a rural church where many of the astronauts’ remains have been recovered.

“That was a relief that they finally started,” said County Judge Wayne Holt.

He said the materials were being brought in by the pickup-load by Tuesday evening and would be stored in an old livestock show barn in San Augustine.

Besides reclaiming human remains, the goal is to reconstruct what can be found of the shuttle.

Investigators said they are particularly interested in recovering computer and other electronic components. But it remained unclear how much of the wreckage would be found or what value the evidence would retain.

The National Transportation Safety Board is assisting in the investigation.

“We hope there is an answer,” said Keith Holloway, an agency spokesman.