- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

LUFKIN, Texas, Feb. 10 (UPI) — NASA officials said Monday that a piece from the left wing of the space shuttle Columbia was recovered last week near Lufkin in east Texas.

The left wing is important in the investigation of the Feb. 1 shuttle breakup that killed seven astronauts because of unusual sensor readings from that wing just before the craft broke up.

NASA reported Friday that the wing section had been found in Texas — but it was unclear at the time which wing it was from.

At a briefing Monday in Washington, a top NASA official confirmed it was from the left wing.

"They have identified that they have at least one piece of the left wing," said Michael Kostelnik, associate deputy administrator for spaceflight.

Kostelnik said the wing section was not found in the Fort Worth area, as believed earlier, but further to the east near Lufkin, which is the location in east Texas, about 180 miles east of Dallas-Fort Worth, where most of the debris has been found.

Kostelnik said other debris has been found in the Fort Worth area, which seems at present to be the westernmost point of the debris field that stretches into western Louisiana. There have been 350 reports of debris outside of Texas and Louisiana, but none of them has been confirmed.

Recovery crews continued to search the woods of east Texas for more debris Monday after discovering a piece of the Columbia's hatch during the weekend. They were also hoping to send divers into Toledo Bend Reservoir where debris might have fallen from the shuttle.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors announced the arrest of a Harrison County constable for taking debris during one of the recovery operations near Nacogdoches, Texas. Robert Hagan, 45, was charged with theft of government property. Two other arrests were made last week.

Hagan showed the wreckage to another law officer Feb. 2 and said he had been told he could keep it because it was of no use to the investigation, according to court documents. The other officer later turned him into authorities.

A NASA engineer examined a photograph of the debris and identified the objects as part of a NASA shuttle tile, according to the prosecutors. The debris is now in the hands of federal investigators and is considered evidence for this case.

"It is a troubling day when an individual who swore to uphold the law is charged with stealing evidence and hindering this historic investigation," said U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig, adding that most people are being very helpful in recovery of the debris.

If convicted, Hagan could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

More than 12,000 pieces of Columbia debris have been recovered in east Texas, mostly in Nacogdoches and Sabine counties, about 120 miles northeast of Houston. Debris has been also found in the western parishes of neighboring Louisiana.

-0-

(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas)

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