Dallas Recalls Columbia Shuttle Disaster Recovery Efforts a Year Later
Feb. 1–It started with a deep rumble, too long and loud to be anything good.
East Texans ran outside. They flipped on TV news. They called each other, wondering. Houses shook for nearly a minute, but the ground didn’t move. The sky stayed blue, save for a white trail that broke into a tangle as if something far above them had come undone.
What had happened that Saturday morning was soon horribly clear. NASA lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts, 200,000 feet above Dallas and 15 minutes from home. Charred pieces rained down.
It was an unimaginable disaster, one that even NASA never thought to prepare for.
But people across the Piney Woods knew what to do. Cops went to work unasked. Church ladies cooked nonstop. Entire towns opened their homes to strangers. Volunteers combed sawbriar thickets where no one had been in years.
Seven heroes were out there. Someone had to find them, for their families. Someone had to track all the pieces of that doomed spacecraft, to help NASA learn what had happened so theirdreams could fly again.
Later, the FBI agents and the preachers, the foresters and the NASA engineers would say they were doing their jobs. The way they tell the story, thousands of ordinary people got the impossible done.
Everyone had the same feeling. They had to do something. They explained it on T-shirts and coffee mugs, with pictures of Columbia rising: “Their mission became our mission.”
Saying that a year later, people’s eyes tear up and their voices crack.
It is more than a slogan. It’s what happened.
Together, they found Columbia. Together, they brought the astronauts home.
The weird rumbling started at 8 a.m. as Jeff Millslagle tied his Adidases for a run. It was still going when he called Pete Galbraith, the FBI’s other supervisor for East Texas: “What in the hell was that?”
They quickly learned it was Columbia, and it happened too high to be a terrorist attack. But another fear nagged for hours: What about everyone below a 230,000-pound spacecraft disintegrating at 12,000 miles an hour?
Agent Millslagle started phoning his men. Four based in Lufkin were headed to Nacogdoches, where people reporting debris were overloading the 911 system.
Agent Galbraith called FBI headquarters in Washington.
“Listen, we’ve got an incident on our hands,” he said. “We don’t know the magnitude. We don’t know injuries on the ground.”
“You’ve got what? Explain this to me slowly,” the Washington agent asked. “What does this have to do with us?”
FBI bosses in Dallas said they’d sort out jurisdictional issues later. They dispatched dozens of agents and opened lines to NASA and emergency managers.
Barksdale Air Force Base called the Tyler agents to say F-16s were headed for East Texas for treetop, high-speed photography runs to get a grasp of the wreckage’s spread.
Stephen F. Austin State University students and staff grabbed global positioning equipment and started mapping the burnt metal that seemed to be all over Nacogdoches.
Sabine National Forest supervisor Gary Cohrs punched up weather service radar on his home computer. What looked like a strangely linear thunderstorm was blowing through five counties. Falling wreckage, he thought, as he saved the images. Hemphill, his hometown, was near dead center.
Overhead, the commercial satellite IKONOS was diverted from orbit as soon as its owners heard about Columbia. They guessed NASA would need every East Texas image they could find.
All those pictures would be crucial in tracking Columbia’s 240-mile trail.
Agent Millslagle left his partner with a ringing cellphone and six blinking phone lines. He sped south toward Lufkin, closer to the worst of the debris.
South of Jacksonville, he saw a state trooper by a 2-foot crater. Whatever made that jagged hole came from Columbia.
“If this little piece did that much damage,” the agent kept thinking, “what am I going to see on the ground? The buildings? The people? If that’s just one little piece — I’ve seen the shuttle take off. I know how big it is.”
About 10:30 a.m., FBI Special Agent Glenn Martin pulled into the red-dirt parking lot at Chinquapin Baptist Church, in San Augustine County. Emergency workers converged there when they heard that human remains were found nearby.
Everyone seemed to be waiting to be told what to do. Agent Martin stood on his car hood and started organizing what would become a two-week search. Cellphones were useless in the area, so two-way radios were divvied up. Enough people brought global positioning devices to log locations of finds. Debris would be flagged but not touched. NASA said it could be toxic. Chaos, the agent thought, but it might work.
Special Agent Terry Lane heard a radio call. A torso was on a dirt road outside Hemphill.
A state trooper got there first and covered it with his raincoat. Sabine County’s chief deputy knew Agent Lane was on an FBI evidence team at Ground Zero after Sept. 11. He asked the agent to help.
Someone said an astronaut in a blue NASA flight suit had just driven up from Houston and wanted to be taken to the road. Agent Lane gently tried to tell the astronaut that he might not want to see what was out there.
But he said he had to go, for his missing friends and the entire astronaut corps. “We don’t want them going anywhere without us,” he told the agent, asking next for a chaplain to meet him there.
First Baptist Church pastor Fred Raney, a volunteer fire lieutenant and chaplain, was at the Hemphill volunteer fire hall. He prayed all the way to the recovery site. “‘Lord, I’ve never done this before. What am I going to do?’” he said. “The Lord just led me.”
He introduced himself to the astronaut and began.
He prayed for the seven lost astronauts. He asked God to guide those trying to find them and comfort all who mourned. He read the 23rd Psalm and another Bible passage on faith’s victory over death.
After a silence, the astronaut nodded, and Agent Lane and others started to work.
A TV news helicopter swooped in, hovering above the treetops for a close shot. The agent and the trooper struggled to hold down the raincoat and keep the body from view. Furious, they swore not to let the media near the fallen astronauts.
By late morning, it was clear that most of the wreckage was between Palestine and the Louisiana line. Reports were coming from as far east as Fort Polk, La., where a 600-pound chunk of engine dug a 6-foot crater in the base golf course.
Someone had asked what to do about wreckage near roads and pieces that looked important. The response was automatic and unrealistic for the wreck of a 2.5 million-part machine: Stand guard until someone could collect it. State troopers would end up standing over wreckage in ’round-the-clock shifts for days.
“We just did not grasp the magnitude,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Britt Featherstone.
The terrifying unknown was how many East Texans were hurt.
Agent Millslagle and others at the FBI office in Lufkin realized local officials were too overwhelmed to help figure that out.
Someone added butcher paper to a conference room wall covered with magic-marker charts and listed hospitals from Palestine to the Toledo Bend Reservoir. An ATF agent spent hours calling them.
The only death on the ground attributed to debris would be an eagle at Lake Nacogdoches.
At noon, NASA manager Dave King walked into the crowded conference room.
NASA’s No. 2 official at Marshall Space Flight Center, he’d been drinking coffee with his wife in their Huntsville, Ala., home when the first bulletin crawled across their TV screen: NASA had lost contact with Columbia. A 19-year shuttle program veteran, he was a young NASA propulsion engineer when they lost Challenger in 1986.
He felt sick.
“Life just significantly changed,” he told his wife. “We’ve just had a very bad day.”
NASA administrators asked him to lead their efforts in to East Texas, so he and seven others hopped a NASA Gulfstream II jet.
“There was just no way to describe the feeling: ‘How are we ever going to do this?’” Mr. King says.
Agent Millslagle greeted Mr. King when he got to Lufkin.
“We never thought this would happen on re-entry,” Mr. King said.
“Whatever you need from the FBI, you got it,” the agent said.
They talked about what people were finding in the woods. Hundreds of residents were combing fields and woods. Some were coming across human remains. They were taking sheets and blankets off their own beds to cover them, and standing vigil for hours until officials could come.
Mr. King said finding the crew was NASA’s first priority. He asked the FBI agents to take charge.
He told them of the lingering hurt within NASA’s family — particularly its astronaut corps — after Challenger. He described stupid bureaucratic missteps that marred recovery of Challenger’s crew.
Everyone vowed to do this one right.
An astronaut would go to every possible crew find, even for personal belongings. A chaplain would pray and read Scripture. The FBI would document recoveries and help escort everything to Lufkin.
The media had to be kept away. A call to the Federal Aviation Administration got the region’s airspace closed below 3,000 feet. Local sensibilities also kicked in, with residents scolding news crews that pushed too hard.
“Everybody was so respectful,” Agent Millslagle says. “You had seven fallen heroes.”
By dusk, a command post took shape in Lufkin’s civic center. The city brought in enough tables and chairs for a small town. A Lufkin phone company had 150 phone and high-speed data lines installed in hours.
The process would be repeated in tiny places like Hemphill, San Augustine and even a fish camp at Toledo Bend. Hemphill, a town of 1,000 too far in the middle of nowhere for cellphone coverage, got three temporary cell towers and a fourth permanent one.
“Better cellphone coverage than New York City,” Agent Galbraith said.
Still, trying to get a handle on where and how to look was mind-boggling.
To FBI agents, it was the world’s biggest crime scene. To U.S. Forest Service rangers, it was a bigger logistical nightmare than the worst Western wildfire. To NASA, it was the physics problem from hell.
“You question — how am I going to deal with this?” Mr. King said. “You just start making decisions — doing what we knew we could do and beginning to try to understand this, one piece of data at a time.”
The National Weather Service radar images of falling wreckage gave them a basic debris footprint. Military photos, satellite images and data from the shuttle before it crashed helped refine search boundaries.
Lighter objects might be west of Dallas. The heaviest seemed to be near Louisiana. Every piece found could help project how other wreckage broke away from the spacecraft and where it might have fallen.
“There were no programs for this,” Agent Galbraith said. “It was a whole new science.”
The forest rangers’ mapping skills and woods sense would help the cops and engineers navigate dense forests where much of the shuttle and its crew appeared to have gone.
“We started kind of triaging, figuring out what was most important to us,” Mr. King said.
The most daunting obstacle was the most basic: How do you cover such a big area — more than 2,000 square miles in Texas alone?
“Well, we can call out the National Guard,” Capt. Paul Davis of the Department of Public Safety told Mr. King that first night.
“I don’t know how many we’ll need,” the NASA manager said. “How many can we have?”
“Somewhere between one and 10,000, sir,” the trooper said.
The organized search began at dawn on Sunday, Feb. 2. For the next two weeks, soldiers, cops, foresters and volunteers moved in arms-length lines. They crossed barbed-wire fences, rough pastures, cutovers, waist-deep muck and hacksaw briars so high that they sometimes had to crawl.
Some areas were so remote that deer and wild hogs stared confused instead of running when the search lines came through.
It snowed, and it sleeted. It rained so hard that cold, muddy water sometimes reached searchers’ necks as they crossed creeks.
Agent Galbraith had to be hospitalized in Lufkin after passing out from dehydration. Mr. Cohrs, the Sabine National Forest manager, was so consumed with directing the search for the crew that he lost 15 pounds in a week. A National Guardsman dropped from exhaustion and then begged, trembling, not to be sent home.
What the searchers found often made them cry.
A tape that FBI Special Agent Garrett Floyd recovered near Palestine had 13 minutes of video shot by astronaut Laurel Clark during re-entry, 25 minutes before the accident. The footage shows crew members bantering and marveling at the red and pink plasma streaking past their windows.
“Everything is cool,” Agent Floyd says. “They’re gonna be home in five minutes. They’re coming back, all happy. … Then it’s gone.”
There were singed pages from technical manuals, some highlighted in yellow. There was pilot Willie McCool’s barely scratched nametag. A toothbrush. ST-107 patches, intended for souvenirs. A DVD copy of Space Cowboys. An Israeli Air Force patch and part of a diary, in Hebrew, from Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
One rainy day, all Agent Floyd’s crew found was a cracked DVD, its Star Wars label still legible. He was stunned and grateful to see Dr. Clark’s husband holding it later in a TV interview.
“You’ve worked kidnappings. You’ve worked homicides. There’s always bad guys. Here, it wasn’t about bad guys,” he said. “They are heroes. We didn’t want their families to have to wonder.”
Most of the crew recoveries included Brother Raney, the Baptist preacher, and a hearse from Hemphill’s only funeral home. The owner or his son drove into the roughest places, tearing up their suits and fussing at any suggestion that they should be paid.
Brother Raney leaned on the Old Testament after hearing about the diversity of Columbia’s crew, which included a Jewish Israeli and a Hindu immigrant from India. A passage from Joshua about courage became his favorite after he learned that commander Rick Husband read it to the crew on the night before launch.
After the Bible readings, Brother Raney prayed.
“I thanked the Lord for the men and women and their commitment and dedication for what they were doing. I asked the Lord to provide strength and comfort to their immediate family and also to the NASA family,” he said.
“I asked the Lord to give strength to the searchers and everyone involved. I thanked him for leading us to that scene, the opportunity to remember that person we looked on as a hero.”
Searchers often formed silent honor guards as FBI agents, Texas Rangers and astronauts passed with body bags, on their way to a makeshift Lufkin morgue.
“There were some moments,” said astronaut Brent Jett. “I was walking out, carrying one of my friends. There were some National Guardsmen. They snapped to attention and snapped off a salute. … It was pretty tough.”
Agent Millslagle said the strain on astronauts was visible but never discussed.
“These are their colleagues, people who they worked with, close friends,” the agent said. “You could just see it — a look of shock on each new blue suit that came in.”
The whole region embraced their grief and their resolve.
Everyone from NASA saw that “from day one,” Mr. King said. “We will find it, we will fix it and we will return to flight — that’s what those people engaged in with us.”
Everywhere, the NASA people and the searchers were deluged with food, drink and gear. A distributor unloaded dozens of jackets and brush pants in San Augustine. A cellphone rep came to Lufkin’s civic center with dozens of phones and said they all had unlimited minutes, nationwide.
One lady decided that 200 searchers from the National Guard who slept in a Hemphill school gym needed fresh towels every day, so she did laundry.
Schoolchildren made sandwiches and decorated sack lunches. Women cooked ’round-the-clock. Covered dishes streamed in. A poor Sabine County man brought a pan of fried chicken, and all the locals said it was his last hen.
An old lady silenced the Hemphill command post with a white sheet cake. It was hand-decorated like an American flag, with the names of Columbia’s astronauts in blue icing. People watched her cut it into 75 pieces. Somebody thanked her as she left.
But no one would touch that cake.
“All those names — on that flag,” Agent Millslagle said. “After about an hour, someone went up and covered it in cellophane. It sat there for days — out of respect for the astronauts.”
It all sometimes overwhelmed the NASA people.
One night, Mr. King and some others needed a break, so they went out for Italian food.
“Sitting there having dinner, with eight NASA badges, a little girl walks up to us — a beautiful 11-year-old girl,” Mr. King said.
“I just have something I wanted to tell you,” she said. “We are really sorry for our lost shuttle. I want to thank you for what you do for our country.”
“It tore me up,” he said.
Mr. King went to courthouses and command posts as often as he could, to thank people. Gradually, he began to understand why so many East Texans were so determined to find Columbia and her crew. It was more than small-town mores, beyond the impulse to pull together after a tragedy.
“I went to thank them for what they’d done for my program and learned that this was not my program,” he said. “These are not our astronauts. They’re America’s.
“Those people feel that, know that and were very, very proud,” Mr. King said. “To a one, everyone said, ‘No, thank you — for allowing me to be a part of it.’
“Those people were unbelievable,” he said.
By Day 10, the search was a massive machine. The 25-mile strip of Sabine County where the crew search had focused was whittled down from four miles wide to one.
Still, people worried. Five of the astronauts’ bodies had been recovered in the first three days. Then, a week passed with only occasional, nominal finds.
Mr. Cohrs prayed hard that tenth morning before leaving his house for the command post.
The call came near mid-day. “We had the sixth crew member. I can’t begin to describe the elation.”
But the news also brought new worry. The body lay farther east than the others, near Toledo Bend.
“It’s only a mile, two miles to water,” Mr. Cohrs said. “The remaining crew member might be in the lake.”
Agent Lane had to leave to testify the next morning in a Lufkin murder trial. He’d helped with all but one of the crew recoveries, missing that one only because he was out on another.He told the prosecutor that he’d be out of that courtroom by 10 a.m.
“It was all I could think about — we’ve got to find that other astronaut,” he said.
The prosecutor rushed him off the witness stand. He sped to Hemphill, changing into woods clothes as he drove.
“God, if it’s meant to be, let us find the seventh one,” he prayed.
Five minutes later, Agent Lane’s truck radio crackled. Someone had the last body.
He said he was on his way. “This is the hand of God,” he thought.
Agent Lane said NASA experts told him Columbia’s crew probably died instantly. That was a relief.
“The bodies were in amazingly good condition,” he said. “These folks that we came to know, that became part of our lives, we know that they didn’t suffer.”
On day 13, word came that Federal Emergency Management Agency and forest Service crews would take over the search the next day. Searchers and townsfolk had a memorial service in Hemphill the next morning, Valentine’s Day.
Agent Millslagle and Agent Galbraith said they all had a hard time leaving.
“We didn’t have an answer for why it went down,” he said. “No one wanted to go home.”
National Forest Service fire crews came from across the country to continue the work.
On March 19, Mr. Cohrs helped a team bring in the shuttle’s OEX flight recorder in San Augustine County. Barely damaged, its data told investigators how Columbia went down.
In April, Agent Lane took the wives of Cmdr. McCool and Col. Ramon to the woods where their husbands’ bodies were found. He knew exactly where to go.
“I will always, for the rest of my life, remember every location that we recovered a body from,” he said. “It’s internal GPS.”
In May, federal officials ended the search. Thirty-thousand people had combed an area the size of Connecticut. It had cost $305 million, and recovered 84,900 pounds of debris — about 38 percent of Columbia. Some NASA engineers had said early on that they’d be lucky to find 10 percent.
The federal government paid $50,000 for property damaged by debris. A report late last summer said it wasn’t particularly surprising that no one on the ground was hurt.
Experts calculated probabilities: a falling shuttle would take only one or two lives, even in
a city like Houston.People who worked the search say they know different. Scientists and preachers, agents and astronauts all talk about the hand of God.
“Had it fallen in Dallas, a couple of minutes earlier, it would’ve been a huge problem. Had it been a few seconds later, it would have gone in the Louisiana swamp,” Agent Millslagle said.
Mr. King, now director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, says what he saw in East Texas “leaves no doubt in my mind.”
“East Texas was prepared to deal with this, uniquely. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I think it was God’s timing.”
The astronauts asked 400 FBI agents involved in the crew search to bring their families to Johnson Space Center on Aug. 1.
An astronaut told Agent Lane that NASA again needed his help. Col. Ramon’s father, 81-year-old Eliezer Wolferman, wanted to come from Israel to see the place where his son’s body was found.
It was rough country, nearly a half-mile from any road. He learned Temple-Inland was getting ready to log in the area. Asked if they might wait until the visit, Temple marked off woods around Col. Ramon’s site, as well as another where a crewmate fell. Each would be memorial ground, never to be touched.
A Temple bulldozer crew cut a road to within 200 yards of Col.Ramon’s 10-acre tract.
Riding in, Mr. Wolferman said the road looked new. He asked when it was built.
“This morning,” Agent Lane said.
“Why?” Mr. Wolferman asked.
“For you,” the agent said. “Because your son is a hero to our country just as much as yours.”
The old man went off into the trees. Sunlight streamed through the branches. “It’s like walking through a church,” the agent thought.
“I can’t believe these people would do this,” Mr. Wolferman said, his eyes welling. “Why would these people do this?
There are other memorials across the Piney Woods. Today, there will be services in Hemphill, San Augustine and Lufkin. Mr. King is flying in from Alabama. He says he needs to be there.
A year later, people say it stays with them — in big and little ways.
“This is the right-stuff people, our best,” Agent Millslagle says. “These are ordinary folks who do extraordinary things.”
These days, he and others still talk of astronauts’ dreams.
Agent Galbraith’s 13-year-old son, Pete, caught the space bug when his father came home from searching. A math and science whiz, he loved his dad’s stories and NASA souvenirs.
The boy went to space camp in Huntsville. He has a blue flight suit. His mom painted a mural of Columbia on his bedroom wall.
“He would love to be an astronaut,” Agent Galbraith says, pleased with that ambition.
The agent knows there are risks. He thinks they are worth it. “There are risks in everything that we do,” he says.
Agent Millslagle will take up NASA’s invitation to the next shuttle launch. Brother Raney and Agent Lane want to go, too.
“After watching all that and living through this, I’d go on that shuttle tomorrow. What a kick! What a thrill!” Agent Millslagle says. He laughs at the thought of even being close to that moment astronauts live for, to that light and thunder of a spacecraft heaving skyward.
“Actually, part of me would like to see it land,” he adds softly. “I’d like to see the rest of the story. … I’d like to see that ending.”
“You just start making decisions — doing what we knew we could do and beginning to try to u
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(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.