The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

February 1, 2013

Remembering Columbia: Locals, officials recall day of shuttle tragedy

Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — It was the noise heard around East Texas.

From law enforcement personnel working on a normal winter Saturday to teenagers sleeping in, the noise seems to be what most Palestine area residents remember about the morning that the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over East Texas 10 years ago.

“I was a teenager, sleeping in,” Kate Hopper said on the Herald-Press Facebook page. “I’ll never forget the sounds that woke me up!”

Added Leizel Johnson Nichols, “I lived right off (Texas Highway) 155. I was on the computer when I heard a loud rumbling. I thought a semi (truck) had come off of 155 and was headed straight for my house and my sleeping child.”

A decade ago today, the calm of an East Texas Saturday morning was shattered by that noise, the sound of the Columbia exploding almost 38 miles above the ground.

The shuttle’s left wing had been damaged during takeoff more than two weeks earlier, when a piece of foam insulation fell off of an external fuel tank and struck the wing.

That damaged the shuttle’s thermal protection system, causing the shuttle to be unable to withstand the force of reentry on Feb. 1.

All seven of Columbia’s crew members died in the explosion.

Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor, then an ACSO captain, won’t ever forget that day. One, because Feb. 1 is his birthday. But, mostly because of what it signaled the beginning of.

“That started about a monthlong, maybe five weeks of 16 hour days,” he said. “I was asleep when it blew up over us, but it was the start of a very busy time for the sheriff’s office and the county.

“I just remember the long work hours and the trudging through the woods and the answering of reports. It brought in thousands of people in the county to pick up (debris).”

Every time a call would come into the sheriff’s office of reported debris, deputies were dispatched out to check it out and, if necessary, secure the scene until pick-up crews could be dispatched.

The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, then known simply as the National Scientific Balloon Facility, became a staging area for space shuttle debris found in the Palestine area.

Taylor remembers how emotional the work was at first, because all seven members of Columbia’s crew died in the blast. But, he said he and his teams simply focused on the work ahead.

“It was important work, trying to get the debris picked up, to try and figure out what happened to the shuttle,” he said.

“It was an emotional job at first, because of the deaths of the crew members, but then it became a crime scene. We found it (debris) all over the county, and our county didn’t get as much as other counties.”

While thousands of pieces of debris were found in Anderson County, the bulk of debris was found to the east, in and around Nacogdoches.

Taylor recalled that a large piece of debris fell in the median of Texas 155 north of Palestine, and said that piece was hard to keep the public away from.

Area residents also remember that piece of debris, which some described as being as big as a car hood.

Through the tragedy, emergency service personnel in the county learned valuable lessons, Taylor said.

“It’s a lifetime memory,” he said. “A lot of lessons learned on how to manage incidents. The citizens can be proud that we learned a lot and we can manage major incidents.”

Carey McKinney, who served as Anderson County Judge at the time of the tragedy, recalls it as one of bringing people together — local residents, law enforcement and county officials as well as local, state and national entities.

“What I remember most in dealing with the tragedy was seeing everybody pull together and do what was needed,” McKinney said. “We had law enforcement, volunteer firefighters and state and federal agencies working together.

“Larry Walding had been named the county emergency management coordinator two weeks earlier,” he added. “He was ‘baptized by fire,’ so to speak, but did a good job making sure everyone had the resources they needed.”

McKinney remembers exactly where he was at the time of the explosion — standing in his kitchen preparing to head to Little Dribblers practice.

“We heard the noise and my son went outside to see what it was,” he said. “We didn’t see anything so we headed on to practice.

“A little while later, my wife came running in the gym and told me what had happened,” he continued. “When I got to the courthouse, there were a lot of people already there, including my secretary Shirley Foster.”

Thanks to previous training, officials thought to reserve hotel rooms for any out-of-town help that might arrive. That help came just a few days in, in the form of 80 state DPS troopers arriving to relive officers who had worked almost around the clock.

“We were exhausted,” McKinney said. “I will never forget how good it felt to see all those ‘black and whites’ at the sheriff station that day.”

The Columbia shuttle disaster put the training of local law enforcement and disaster personnel into practice and honed their skills for future situations.

“People just did an outstanding job in the community,” McKinney said. “Every county involved learned from each other and the FBI, NASA and others joined together to respond to the tragedy.

“It was an experience I will never forget, and one I hope that we will never have to see again.”

The disaster also gave Palestine a new place in history, for better or for worse.

The National Scientific Balloon Facility was renamed the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in February 2006.

“Unfortunately, through the tragedy, it had a historical impact on our county and all the other counties that had a lot of debris,” Taylor said. “It gave the county a historical perspective that we didn’t have. We’re kind of famous for that. Several East Texas counties are.”

Read more comments from local citizens about the 10th anniversary online at