- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

DALLAS, Feb. 4 (UPI) — The leader of an independent investigation into the Columbia tragedy traveled to southeast Texas on Tuesday to see the recovery operation first hand.

Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who heads the Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board, arrived at the Nacogoches airport by helicopter.

Gehman, who also led the inquiry into the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, told WFAA that the investigation would be done right.

"The astronauts who will fly future orbiter missions need to know we have done everything we possibly can to come to the bottom of this and fix it," he said. "On the other hand, we have three astronauts in space right now who are depending upon on us to resume operation."

Gehman's visit came after crews in Sabine County south of Nacogdoches removed a 500-pound section of the Columbia's nose from the ground and prepared it for transport, possibly by helicopter.

The shattered nose was the latest major piece of shuttle debris to be found in an area about 180 miles southeast of Dallas near the Louisiana state line.

The nose section was found embedded in the ground west of Hemphill on Monday. It was put under guard until federal teams could removed it.

"Some of it is buried down there in the dirt," said Sabine County Sheriff Tommy Maddox.

At a news briefing, Maddox also confirmed that "several" more human remains were found early Tuesday, but he would not go into any detail.

Maddox said search teams are battling very rugged conditions, including briar patches that are so thick only a rabbit or wild hog can penetrate them. He said searchers coming out of the dense brush after a day of searching "look bad."

Maddox said one of the recovery team members suffered a hip injury Monday.

Meanwhile, NASA officials expanded the search area for debris to the west because they believe debris fell from Columbia before it flew over Texas.

NASA dispatched investigators to California and Arizona on Tuesday after hearing reports that debris had landed in those states.

"If it is wing material, that certainly would be important to the investigation," said NASA's deputy space flight administrator Michael Kostelnik.

On Monday, Ron Dittemore, NASA's shuttle program director, told reporters that any tile or other debris found in that area could be key evidence.

The most widely distributed photos and video of Columbia's breakup at 8 a.m. CST Saturday were taken in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but the shuttle had passed over California, Arizona and New Mexico on final approach to a scheduled Florida landing.

The shuttle was more than 200,000 feet above Texas, traveing at 12,500 mph, when it broke apart, scattering debris in a southeasterly direction across Texas and into Louisiana. Debris has been reported in 33 Texas counties and 14 Louisiana parishes.

Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., is the main NASA command post and collection point for human remains and wreckage. The remains may be moved later to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the Defense Department's mortuary.

A Western collection site was opened Monday at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base at Fort Worth.

Hundreds of federal, state and local officers continue to search for additional debris, a huge task that make take weeks, if not months. Local officials say some pieces may never be found in the deep forests and lakes.

Residents are being warned not to touch any debris because of toxic fuels used aboard the shuttle, and federal prosecutors are investigating some people who reportedly have taken debris to their homes.

"The wreckage is property of the United States, no matter where or when it's found," said U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby in Houston. "Each piece is crucial to investigators and essential to determine the cause of this terrible accident."

Shelby said anyone who hinders the investigation by attempting to collect a piece of the debris will face federal prosecution. If convicted, an illicit collector of Columbia debris could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Gov. Rick Perry asked all Texans to observe a moment of silence at noon Tuesday to honor the seven astronauts killed aboard the Columbia. The moment of silence coincided with the memorial service at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"I join Texans in offering heartfelt prayers for the families of these seven astronauts and unending gratitude for their sacrifice," the governor said. "They were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. And they are heroes to us all."

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