Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the Columbia shuttle disaster, when seven astronauts died and a broken spacecraft scattered from Dallas to Shreveport.
For most of us that story, remarkable as it was, faded in a couple of weeks as the national reporters left Texas and our attention turned to the run-up for the Iraq war. The people in East Texas, however, were having a very different experience.
On that clear Saturday morning when the shuttle came apart, the sound of its re-entry was frightening. “Horrible,” was the word people used, time and again, when I traveled there to research a book of fiction set against the backdrop of the disaster. The noise was a crashing, thunderous boom that went on and on. People thought of pipeline explosions and terrorist attacks.
Near Hemphill, the ground shook as the nose cone slammed into the woods. Some residents heard a whirring sound and a whoosh like the noise of a big fire. A few minutes later, all over East Texas, the pieces began to fall.
The accident was distressing and sad, and it was all around them. Parts of the astronauts’ bodies were found right away – along roadsides, near houses, in troubling and unexpected places. One man stopped his truck to move what he thought was a log in the road, but discovered it was a leg.
Later there would be hordes of volunteers and the highly organized NASA search effort. But in those first two days, “it was just us,” as one resident told me. They searched for and covered what they could, as quickly as they could manage. No one wanted to think about what the coyotes might do.
On Sunday morning, groups of quickly-organized volunteers set out all across East Texas. A county extension agent I talked with collected his 4H-ers to search on horseback that day – the first of two solid weeks of searching he did. He learned to carry wire cutters to free the horses’ legs from vines.
Much of the shuttle debris fell in the part of East Texas known as the Pine Thicket. The underbrush is tough; a head-high briar called the Devil’s Walking Stick can have thorns more than one inch long. One county official told me: The people in Washington didn’t understand why it could take us a whole day to search one mile.
By Monday the word was out that NASA wanted volunteer searchers and help began to arrive. That brought other problems. Who would feed them all? Where would they sleep? These are small towns in rural areas, with few motels and not a lot of grocery stores.
Again the people improvised. Later there would be port-o-johns, tents and meal trucks to handle hundreds of searchers who poured in from all over the country. In the beginning though, there were the biggest church suppers you ever saw and lists of folks with spare beds in their homes.
Embracing recovery efforts
The Pine Thicket of East Texas is a rural world unto itself. There isn’t much industry and there aren’t many jobs. “Our biggest employer is welfare,” one elected official told me ruefully.
The culture is racially stratified in a way that’s hard to watch. Yet the shuttle debris could not have landed in a place more willing to wrap its arms around the recovery, draining as it was. When NASA asked the searchers not to photograph debris or talk about the human remains, it was rare that they did. They brought old-fashioned loyalty and a patriotic duty to the whole endeavor. The county agent who searched on horseback for two weeks, an ex-Marine, told me nothing he saw in Vietnam affected him as much as this disaster.
Nearly 84,000 pieces from the shuttle were recovered. The searching went on through winter and into spring, while we went on to other things. Most of us never heard that a search helicopter crashed, killing the pilot and a Texas Forest Service employee.
Each of the towns in East Texas owns the disaster in its own way. Lufkin was home to NASA’s command center. Hemphill, where the nose cone fell, has built a museum. San Augustine, where fewer reporters ventured, toiled quietly below the media radar.
This weekend they will honor the astronauts, and remember that when the worst had happened and there was no game plan in sight, the people of East Texas figured out what to do.