Rain of Metal Rattles Those on the Ground

Lee Hockstader and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 2, 2003

One slab smashed into the ground outside Bobby Hobson's chicken coop, just about the time he was there for the morning feed. A long, black strip tumbled into F.E. Abernethy's back yard; he spotted it on his way to the barn. A big, twisted chunk, the size of a car hood, crashed smack in the heart of downtown in this tidy East Texas college town that suddenly became ground zero for the nation's latest disaster.

The space shuttle Columbia cascaded to Earth this morning in a furious shower of shrapnel from a crystalline blue sky, spreading over hundreds of square miles from northern Texas to Louisiana.

A deafening roar punctuated by terrible booms startled people from their beds. Windows, roofs and tiles trembled. Suburban dogs barked madly at the heavens. There was a staccato pop-pop-pop of unknown objects hurtling to the ground like deadly hail.

Miraculously, perhaps, no one on the ground was seriously hurt. But many were seriously frightened

"The house was shaking, the windows were shaking, I was shaking," said Sherry McCrary, 45, a fifth-grade teacher here, who said the rumbling lasted perhaps 20 or 30 seconds. "My son thought it was an earthquake. It was rumbling, rumbling like thunder. It just kept going and going from west to east."

Authorities in Hemphill, Tex., near the Louisiana border, said human remains from the shuttle had been found in woods and open fields there. Sgt. Daniel Young of the Texas Rangers said four parts of human bodies, including some limbs, had been collected by federal officials and taken to a morgue. A helmet and clothing also were found.

In Dallas, thousands watched the awful spectacle of the shuttle's breakup -- morning strollers, early risers, even Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). Larry Whatley, 48, of East Dallas, who had watched the shuttle pass overhead at least five times before, was in a neighborhood park with his binoculars waiting for its approach from the west. He knew Columbia was scheduled to appear about 8:03 a.m., and he was waiting for its spectacular Mach-20 arrival.

At first, he said, everything looked normal, "just like a flashlight coming at you -- it's that fast, with a tail of smoke. Then, once it got over the top of me, I saw a big ol' fireball." Seconds later, Whatley said, he saw "a huge piece of metal that had fallen off. I mean it was huge."

Brian Wallace, 35, a mechanical engineer in Nacogdoches, said the long, concussive roar from the space shuttle's descent and disintegration shook his house so violently that after 20 or 30 seconds, the thermostat clicked on. Then the roar faded out to the east, but the thermostat stayed on.

F.E. Abernethy, 77, a retired literature professor in Nacogdoches, said his dogs started barking even before he heard the disintegrating shuttle's rippling roar. His 115-year-old frame house vibrated long and loud. Abernethy glanced at a clock; it was 8:04 a.m. He later found a strip of black metal, two feet long and two inches wide, in his back yard.

The detritus of the shuttle rained down from Dallas to the southeast, setting small fires, leaving fields and forests smoldering. One hefty slab also slammed into the grassy median strip of a four-lane road north of the East Texas town of Palestine.

Some believed a tree had fallen on their houses or a gas line had exploded or a train had derailed. Tracy McCown, 31, the children's minister at Nacogdoches's First Baptist Church, said some of her friends believed they were in the grip of a spiritual upheaval.

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