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Symbols of Loss Strewn Across 500 Square Miles

Times Staff Writers

The terrible rain of burned metal fell over horse pastures and frontyards, onto bank parking lots and sidewalks of small towns across East Texas and parts of Louisiana.

Ordinary folks expecting an ordinary Saturday instead found themselves navigating a landscape specked with jagged emblems of loss from the disintegrated space shuttle.

Katrina Self broke down after tripping across what appeared to be an electrical box lying beneath an oak in Pioneer Park. The piece of metal, said Self, a 25-year-old student, made immediate the deaths of the seven Columbia astronauts.

“They probably touched that,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “Seeing this in person, you know that they were real people. Seven people. It took me back to when I was a child and the Challenger happened. It’s happened again. I can’t believe it.”

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This quiet town of 31,000, about 130 miles northeast of Houston, was one of the spots most heavily pelted by Columbia debris.

No injuries were reported on the ground, but authorities in an area covering at least 500 square miles guarded blackened remnants, warning residents not to touch the debris out of fear it might be contaminated by toxins used to fuel the shuttle.

Some residents drove around town toting instant cameras and camcorders to chronicle a moment in American history, if a tragic one. By midafternoon, Sabria Holland, 41, had already developed pictures she took with a disposable camera. One photograph showed a piece of round metal, possibly from a canister, and labeled “wastewater.”

In rural Hemphill, near the Louisiana state line, officials were reported to have recovered partial human remains in an area where there was other debris from the shuttle.

The Sounds of Tragedy

About 8 a.m., Nacogdoches residents reported first hearing a prolonged boom -- some said it lasted five minutes, others two -- that puzzled them because of its force.

Debra Johnson, a Nacogdoches middle-school teacher’s aide, turned to her father: “Did we just have a bomb? Did we just derail?”

The answer became clear as residents encountered a scene befitting a science-fiction movie. Along the town’s quiet streets lay chunks of the shuttle, ranging in size from that of a pebble to 8 feet long. There were metal strips and bent pieces. There were scraps that resembled tar paper and others bearing the marks of rivets.

One chunk pierced the roof of a dentist’s office.

Authorities cordoned off wreckage with yellow police tape and assigned guards. NASA officials warned that debris might be contaminated.

Around Dallas, highway signs urged anyone who found debris to call police, and on Smith Street in Nacogdoches, eight National Guard troops in camouflage uniforms kept watch over a scrap of charred metal, about 1 1/2 feet long, sitting outside the fenced yard of a house.

Not far away, on residential Warren Drive, a 2-foot section of hinged metal that looked like a mechanical arm lay in the frontyard of Joe Harvey. The Guardsmen asked Harvey to keep onlookers from touching the debris, which sat behind police tape.

Harvey was joined by a friend, Evan Byars, who soon found more debris nearby -- a 3-inch length of what appeared to be blackened tape.

“Hey look, Joe, here’s some more insulation,” Byars said. He nudged it with his tennis shoe.

Harvey was among many people from Dallas eastward who reported a thundering sound more powerful than a typical sonic boom. Harvey was at work at an oil-change shop when he heard and felt the noise. “It rattled our whole building,” he said.

‘A Ball of Fire’

In rural Dialville, Harvey J. Hanson, a 54-year-old retired police officer, was watching for the passing shuttle through binoculars when he saw “a ball of fire coming at me.”

Four or five balls of fire fell from the first, Hanson said, and were accompanied by a sound “like bacon frying in a skillet....I knew something was wrong, because parts were falling off it. Looked like a mass of meteors coming in. That just didn’t add up.”

The Environmental Protection Agency readied for a cleanup as military aircraft flew over a 2,000-square-mile debris field extending well into Louisiana and possibly beyond. NASA officials hope to recover every scrap in an effort to determine what went wrong.

Officials said they were investigating more than 1,000 fragments across Nacogdoches County. Two astronauts made the rounds to help inspect the pieces.

The news of the disaster had people glancing skyward nervously even where no debris fell.

At a high school baseball field in Plano, a Dallas suburb, Kendra Guy, 40, said she had been jittery about going to the open field for her son’s baseball tryout out of fear of more falling debris.

Plano had been rattled by word of an apartment building fire that at first was thought to have been ignited by debris. That proved not to be true.

“I’m just very watchful,” Guy said.

At the sheriff’s office in rural Cherokee County in East Texas, deputies tracked reported debris sightings by jabbing blue pins into a wall map. By evening, there were dozens. Officials from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and NASA were on hand.

A 2-foot by 4-foot segment of the shuttle’s outer shell fell into a frontyard, barely missing a house. A piece of wreckage recovered in another area of the county filled a truck flatbed.

Justin Robinson, an 18-year-old high school senior in Rusk, 37 miles northeast of Nacogdoches, used a flashlight to explore where a piece landed beneath a bridge.

The charred chunk -- 18 inches by 10 inches -- bore the words “blood kit.”

“I’ve been finding stuff all day on my land,” Robinson said. “It’s a tragedy.”

By Saturday afternoon, pieces described as chunks of the shuttle had begun showing up on EBay, the popular Internet auction site, prompting outrage at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A top law enforcement officer in Texas said the FBI was investigating.

In Nacogdoches, the debris invited a vigil-like solemnity.

In the parking lot of the Commercial Bank of Texas downtown, Sylvia Haley joined others near where a 3-foot piece of metal lay.

She had driven 25 miles with a friend to view the wreckage, which she saw as a link to the men and women who had ridden the craft to the end.

“We wanted to be close, to look at it,” Haley said. “It kind of makes you feel like you’re putting your arms around them.”

*

Hart reported from Nacogdoches; Ellingwood from Atlanta. Dana Calvo also contributed from Plano.


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