Ten years later, the moment I remember most about the Columbia shuttle tragedy took place in a Sunday school class at First Baptist Church in tiny Alto, Texas.
The half-dozen congregants silently passed around photos of pieces of the space shuttle that fell there the day before, when Columbia broke up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.
A piece of metal the size of a shoe box in a woman's front yard. A scrap of what looked like scorched heat shield, in the middle of a country road.
There was a deep reverence as volunteer firefighter Jeff Duplichain shared the photos he had taken of the debris he helped catalog.
This one-stoplight town was already in mourning that Saturday when they heard the roar that shook their homes. The Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003, happened the same day as the funeral for a popular high-school senior — one in a class of just 47 — who had died in a car accident earlier that week.
Alto's people already were grieving a very personal loss when a national loss started raining down on them.
The Columbia tragedy became intensely personal for so many people in rural east Texas, where many of the shuttle pieces were recovered.
Like the Challenger accident before it, Columbia is that rare breed of catastrophe so unexpected, so wrenching, that we remember exactly where we were when we heard about them. We remember what we were doing, who we were with.
But unlike Challenger, which broke up over the Atlantic, Columbia fell on lawns, in parking lots and on rooftops.
Long after the television crews and reporters like me left town, people there continued to stumble on pieces of Columbia.
"Things just kept turning up," said Duplichain, the firefighter who brought the photos to the Sunday school class.
I called him this week and discovered that the tragedy lingered for years.
"People would be out in the woods hunting and come back with pieces of the shuttle," he told me. "People had grown accustomed to it. They knew the difference between a regular piece of metal and a piece of the shuttle."
Bruce Partain, president of the Chamber of Commerce in neighboring Nacogdoches County, said he can't help but reflect on how deeply shaken his community was by being thrust into the middle of the nation's heartbreak.
Back then, I met Partain at a makeshift command post at the county jail, where local law enforcement organized and managed searches.
"I have been thinking about it," he said when I reached him this week. "The astronauts and the thousands of support people — all of those people really are heroic. So when the accident happened and our community just happened to be in the pathway of that, we were given a task."
People mobilized. Volunteers helped search the fields and woods. More volunteers helped to feed the searchers with trays of sandwiches and baked goods.
Partain still marvels at something else.
"The fact that no one was injured on the ground was really amazing," he said. "There were some really big cylinders and you know they hit hard. To not have one house where somebody was hurt, you have to think about that and wonder how did that happen."
Not a single injury was reported from falling debris, though the pain of Columbia's loss was felt deeply in the communities that recovered the seven astronauts and much of the shuttle.
On Friday, many of us will remember where we were 10 years ago when Columbia broke up. The people in Alto, Nacogdoches and other east Texas towns will remember how a national disaster touched their lives in a very personal way.
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