Some things you never forget, like the day the sky cried in our neck of the woods. Fifteen years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated above the skies of East Texas. That Saturday started like every other normal day, but sometimes, normal days become extraordinary, memorable or catastrophic.
I had a group of employees in a First Aid/CPR class that started at 6:00 AM at the local hospital. After everything settled in, I went to the office to catch up on paperwork.
At 9:00 AM, the entire office began to shake violently and there was a steady roar outside.
My first thought was that our huge LaTournea had gotten to close to the office, but it was Saturday, and I was the only one there. The next thought was a tornado, but it was a clear, sunny day. The office kept shaking. I wondered if a train out front had a rail car slightly derail like had happened the week before. I glanced outside but there was no train in sight. The building quit shaking, so I obliviously went back to the work unaware of what was happening directly above in the sky.
About 10:00 AM I drove to the hospital to check on the training which was scheduled until Noon. Surprisingly, the classroom was closed and locked. It was odd, but that meant I was done for the day too.
About halfway home, I turned on the radio. A panicked radio announcer said, “Do NOT touch any part of the Space Shuttle because of extreme chemical danger. We repeat, if you come across any portion of the Space Shuttle, do NOT touch it!”
Within minutes I was watching video on TV of the Space Shuttle falling from from the sky with a major concentration landing in East Texas and Nacogdoches County.
A friend told me later he was driving into town when he topped a hill and almost hit what he thought was a metal garbage dumpster. He backed up his truck to the top of the hill with his flashers on to warn others of the danger in the road. He and another man pushed the big metal object off the road so no one would get hurt. He remembers how strangely warm the “dumpster” was on a relatively cool day. Later, he found out he had just pushed a piece of the Space Shuttle out of the road.
One story I heard was about local National guardsman who was sent into the woods to guard a piece of shiny foiled board someone had called in. He stayed there 24 hours guarding the piece of debris without relief or food. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He disobeyed his direct orders not to touch the debris and carefully turned it over. In big letters it said Lowe’s. It was just a piece of insulation board off someone’s house!
After watching the news a while, my three oldest sons and I walked our 20 acres, but didn’t find anything because we were just north of the debris line.
We went back to where I work on the south side of Nacogdoches. Uncertain of what, if anything we might find, I told my sons to tell me immediately if they saw anything that was, well, human like. We spread out in the open areas and found small pieces of aluminum, metal, wire, even a round object that looked like a painted tennis ball.
It felt really good each time we found a piece, like a child finding Easter Eggs in a big hunt. But on the other hand, each little piece was a somber reminder of a reality that twisted a huge knot in the pit of the stomach. In quiet reverence, we spray painted red circles on the ground around each piece we found so it could be easily found again later.
The next day a co-worker and I found a surveyor from Houston with a precise GPS. He had driven up for the day because he wanted to help however he could.
We teamed up and took pictures and GPS coordinates of every one of the 87 pieces we found. The pieces ranged from the size of a nickel to the size of your hand, including a small circuit panel with wires. We turned the pieces, numbered pictures and GPS coordinates over to the Emergency Command site.
Over the next year, emergency response teams, firefighters and law enforcement from all over the country filtered in and out of a tent city established at the Nacogdoches County Exposition Center. Teams searched the woods, pastures, river banks and back roads all over East Texas looking for pieces and parts that may provide answers. Parts of the tent city lasted two years.
It was common to be driving in the country and come up on a uniformed team who were an arm’s length apart, walking side by side searching the woods, open pastures, and back roads for pieces of debris.
Even with all of the efforts, it’s estimated only 40% of the Space Shuttle was ever recovered. A few years ago in a summer drought, a lake began drying and revealed a large piece of Space Shuttle near the bank that had been submerged in water. Much of it is still out there, somewhere.
A small memorial plaque, in honor of the seven men and women who were on board that day, now sits next to a bank drive through where a big piece of the Space Shuttle fell from the sky. Every major media broadcaster in the country broadcast from that bank parking lot that day from the oldest town in Texas.
(Small memorial next to where a large piece of the Space Shuttle Columbia landed in a bank parking lot in Nacogdoches, Texas)
Everyone old enough probably remembers what they were doing that day. East Texans do too, many with first hand memories. The many stories, the experiences mostly showed the best of people. Some, the worst. Looking back fifteen years though, it still seems just so, gut wrenching.
Today’s a good day to stop, remember, and honor those who have fallen. Likewise, may we admire and respect those who still boldly go where no one has gone before, even when sometimes, the sky cries.