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.

"They were like, 'Oh, my God, it's the rapture!' " she said, laughing a little. "You know, we're Christians."

A barrel-shaped chunk fell like a bomb on the Nacogdoches airport's landing strip. In and around the town, neighborhoods were littered with the debris of Columbia.

That was just what people saw. No one knew how much had fallen in the dense piney woods of East Texas, outside the towns and off the main roads. Some guessed that souvenir hunters could be finding pieces for years.

"We've found pieces from the size of a dime up to 6 feet by 6 feet," said Larry Hobson, 45, fire chief of the town of Douglass, 15 miles west of Nacogdoches.

Nacogdoches County Judge Sue Kennedy, who is also the emergency management coordinator, said more than 500 fragments believed to be parts of the space shuttle had been found in the county by midafternoon. Hundreds, maybe thousands, more were turning up over a broad swath of territory.

National Guard troops and volunteers from a variety of agencies were helping in the search for the shuttle's flotsam. Two NASA officials, Greg Johnson and Mark Kelly, arrived in Nacogdoches to inspect the fragments and help the recovery efforts.

At points along the sides of bucolic county roads, pickup trucks were parked on the shoulder where a fragment of the shuttle had landed. Cowboys and chicken farmers and news reporters shuffled around the pieces as if they were artifacts from another planet, guessing at which part of the shuttle they had belonged to and trading the stories they had to tell.

Near Douglass, just west of Nacogdoches, a jagged chunk the size of a baking sheet, but thicker, lay at the side of Route 21.

Terry Perkins, 43, a volunteer firefighter and a painter for a manufacturer of motor homes in Nacogdoches, gazed at the chunk and recalled the morning's spectacle. "I saw it in the sky; there was a thick fog of vapor. It had a smell like an electric fire -- I can still smell it."

Ghastly as the event was to many people, it also became a spectator sport for some locals. Teenagers raced from site to site, snapping photos of the debris and themselves posing with it. Everyone seemed to have a camera. And nearly everyone tried to keep up with the rumor mill -- where the largest chunks had fallen; whether it was true that so-and-so had carted one off as a souvenir.

A focal point of information and activity was the parking lot of the Commercial Bank of Texas in downtown Nacogdoches, where a chunk the size of a car door had come to rest near the drive-through ATM. On one side of the square was the Mason's lodge, on another the town's best hotel, on another a church, on another the bank. News crews encircled the lot, which police sealed off with yellow tape. Hundreds milled around swapping stories.

"There's a nickname -- everybody calls Nacogdoches 'Nacognowhere,' " said Devin Greer, 19, a freshman business major at Stephen F. Austin University, the local college. "This kind of makes us 'Nacogsomewhere.' It's a tragedy, but it puts us on the map."

Many came to the center of this town, among the oldest communities in Texas, and stood silently, staring at the 4-foot section of the shuttle, its ribbing exposed. Nearby, the U.S. and Texas flags waved at half-staff outside the bank. Some people laid small bouquets of flowers under the police tape.

"For your courage and bravery," read a card affixed to a bouquet of carnations. "May God provide grace and comfort for your families. God bless America, land of the free and home of the brave."

As radio and television reports amplified warnings from NASA and other authorities not to touch any of the debris, people trickled into the emergency room at Nacogdoches Memorial starting around 10 a.m. -- some of them carrying the pieces they had found.

"Some of the folks brought the pieces of the debris with them to the hospital. Pieces of this thing are all over the place," said G.W. Jones, assistant administrator of the county hospital.

Security guards screened people outside the hospital before the debris was brought inside. One of the pieces was about the size of a hand, he said; all of it was being turned over to the National Guard.

Jones said 27 people had turned up at the emergency room seeking information about possible side-effects from contact with Columbia's flotsam. But despite the dire warnings from officials, there were no apparent injuries -- "not even an abrasion from this thing," he said. "They are very calm. They just kind of need to know what they should do in case they have any side-effects developing at some later point."

He said the hospital was advising people to wash their hands vigorously with soap and water and watch closely for symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, rash, itching and blurred vision.

McCown, the children's minister, resolved that she would speak to her kids about the tragedy Sunday morning. She said she would not honey-coat the astronauts' deaths. "I'll talk about the pieces and all this," she said, motioning toward the television trucks surrounding the bank parking lot. "But I'll tell them about the families, too. It's hard, but it's important."

Schmidt reported from Washington.

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