- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

LUFKIN, Texas, Feb. 18 (UPI) — Rural landowners from California to Louisiana were urged Tuesday to check their property for debris from space shuttle Columbia.

Recovery officials are still trying to find hardware that may have broken off the orbiter before it disintegrated Feb. 1 over Texas, killing seven astronauts. Most of the debris has been found in east Texas and western Louisiana.

NASA is asking farmers and ranchers along or 60 miles either side of a line from San Francisco to Lafayette, La., to be on the lookout for debris. The Texas Forestry Association is also asking private landowners to check their property.

NASA wants to recover as much of the debris as possible to further the investigation, said David Passey, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Investigators are particularly interested in the first debris to break away.

So far, no shuttle debris has been found west of Fort Worth, Texas. Reports have been investigated in 10 states but none of them has checked out. Searches this weekend in California and the New Mexico mountains proved fruitless, Passey said.

Federal agencies have taken over the recovery operation in east Texas and western Louisiana.

About 79 percent of the reported sites in Texas have been cleared along with 99 percent of the reported sites in Louisiana, but recovery teams are racing against Mother Nature.

"There is some urgency because of what we call 'green-up,' where the vegetation in the forest takes on a whole different atmosphere," said Gay Ippolipo, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.

In about a month spring vegetation will break out in the woods of east Texas and western Louisiana, making a thorough search of the forest floor nearly impossible. Any shuttle parts remaining in the thickets will be covered until next fall.

A state and federal force of nearly 1,400 is assigned to the recovery operation, a large number of them U.S. Forest Service firefighters from the southern states.

Since the Feb. 1 accident, the remains of the astronauts have been recovered along with more than 12,000 pieces of Columbia debris, including a large section of the left wing, the nose cone, circuit boards, and other hardware.

A U.S. Navy search team continues working at Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border where one unidentified piece of the shuttle was recovered. A fisherman reported seeing a large piece of debris fall into the lake the day of the Columbia disaster.

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