- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

DALLAS, Feb. 1 (UPI) — The space shuttle Columbia, carrying seven astronauts, ripped apart over North Texas on Saturday, scattering burning and toxic debris for more than 100 miles from southeast of Dallas into western Louisiana.

Grass fires were doused near Palestine, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas, and large numbers of metal debris were reported at Nacogdoches, a small town of about 32,000 near the Louisiana state line.

"There's a tremendous amount of debris in the area," acting Nacogdoches City Manager Victoria Lafollette told United Press International. "It's on a trajectory that stretches all the way to San Augustine County."

San Augustine County is southeast of Nacogdoches, which appeared to be the center of the largest debris field being secured by state and federal law officers.

At a news conference, Nacogdoches officials said the heaviest debris was in a line from Palestine to San Angustine County. It was most concentrated around Nacogdoches.

County Judge Sue Kennedy said they were checking out numerous calls from area residents about possible debris. She said there was one unconfirmed report of human remains that was being checked out.

Kennedy said members of the Texas National Guard and volunteers were aiding local authorities in guarding every piece of debris. She said they are working closely with NASA officials in identifying pieces of the shuttle.

"We are amateurs in regards to the building and construction of space shuttles," Kennedy said. "We are seeing anything from something that is a foot long to 7 feet long to several feet wide. We are getting some pretty large pieces."

Kennedy said the NASA officials said they are especially interested in debris that appears to be part of "control center" of the shuttle. She said they want to be notified if those parts are found.

Debris also reported in western Louisiana.

Helicopters and troops from Fort Hood, Texas, under the command of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division have joined the massive recovery operation in East Texas.

State and local law officers have spread out along the path of the shuttle to search for debris and NASA has warned the public to stay clear of any parts.

Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said state troopers were assisting in the massive operation.

"Anyone who has located debris from the shuttle should call law enforcement authorities or the DPS," she said. "Do not approach the debris or touch any of it as there may be toxic chemicals that are used in the propellant of the shuttle."

Federal prosecutors also warned that it is a federal crime to remove a piece of a crashed aircraft. A conviction could mean up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In addition to NASA teams, the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI, Federal Emergency Management Administration and state and local officials may have roles in the recovery operation, according to NASA officials.

"It is a tremendous effort that has been engaged and that is in the process of coming together with all different agencies from different parts of the country," said Ron Dittemore, Shuttle program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Residents across North Texas reported hearing a sonic boom when the shuttle broke apart about 8 a.m. CST at 12,500 mph, 18 times the speed of sound.

"All of a sudden my whole house shook," said Pat Gore, of Wills Point, who thought a gas pipeline at the back our her house had blown up.

Gore said her husband said it was probably the shuttle going through on the way to Florida.

"It scared the thunder out of me," she said.

Grass fires and debris were reported in the areas around Kerens, Palestine, Henderson, Lufkin, Jasper, Corsicana and Nacogdoches, all southeast of Dallas.

The Dallas/Fort International Airport's Mobile Command Post was deployed to East Texas to aide NASA and local officials. The bus is equipped with the most up-to-date intelligence and communications equipment for emergency situations.

About 30 aircraft were in the Dallas-Fort Worth area at the time the shuttle was passing through North Texas airspace, but there was in no impact on air traffic flight operations, according to airport officials.

The Columbia's breakup in the sky over Dallas was captured by photographers with WFAA-TV and amateurs who were setup for a routine shuttle approach.

Space shuttles often pass over North Texas as they make their final descent for a landing at Cape Canaveral. Professional photographers and amateurs often capture the flights, but Saturday they got more than they expected.

John Pronk, a WFAA reporter and photographer, was at Fair Park in Dallas prepared to take some routine footage for his television station.

"It came over downtown, appeared suddenly and my camera was trying to find it, and it came over to the southeast," he said. "That's when we started to see what happened."

Don Archer of Waco told NBC News he was videotaping the shuttle as it streaked overhead.

"It disappeared and seemed like it started breaking up," he said. "There was additional fire and smoke hanging in the sky. I didn't hear anything because I was concentrating on taking the video."

Within a few minutes, the Johnson Space Center in Houston confirmed there was an emergency with the Columbia's return from a 15-day science mission.

"It was a tragic day for the NASA family," said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe at a later news conference.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered flags flown at half-staff at all state buildings in memory of the Columbia's crew.

"The thoughts and prayers of all Texans are with the family members of the astronauts lost in today's tragedy," the governor said.

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