- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

HEMPHILL, Texas (AP) Searchers found the nose cone of the space shuttle Columbia buried deep in a thick pine forest near the Louisiana border, officials said last night.
"It's reasonably intact," said Warren Zehner, a senior coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing collection of shuttle debris.
Mr. Zehner estimated that the shuttle piece weighed 500 pounds.
Since the shuttle broke up 39 miles over Texas, search teams have hunted remains and debris in the rivers and woods of Louisiana and Texas, including finding a 6- to 7-foot chunk of shuttle cabin found in one rural county.
Environmental and explosives experts, along with NASA officials, bagged wreckage and transported it to airports serving as evidence warehouses.
By late yesterday afternoon, 12,000 pieces of debris had been collected.
State troopers near the site where the nose cone was discovered described a hole about 20 feet wide in the pine forest. The troopers, who would not give their names, were stationed at a roadway to keep the media and others from the site.
About 10 searchers emerged from the woods with bags full of debris, including metal objects. They filled a bed of a pickup truck with debris. A crew is expected to arrive at the site today to dig the nose cone out.
Throughout the day, investigators went from rural schools to a college campus yesterday gathering pieces of Space Shuttle Columbia strewn across a pine-cloaked disaster scene larger than West Virginia. The shuttle disintegrated as it flew over Texas en route to a landing in Florida. All seven astronauts were killed.
"We are collecting material that we find on the ground even as small as a quarter," said Gary Moore, a regional coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. "Obviously, you're going to get to a point where you can't collect every single speck."
The agency is using an airplane equipped with infrared sensors that can spot debris that might be tainted with hazardous chemicals, as well as a mobile unit on the ground to determine whether any shuttle wreckage is emitting toxic chemicals.
Divers plied the murky waters of the Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana state line yesterday, scouting for what authorities believe is a car-size chunk of the shuttle. Nothing was found, although divers are expected to return today with sonar gear.
NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said NASA was particularly interested in any pieces that may have fallen from Columbia as far west as New Mexico, Arizona or California. The FBI was checking reports of debris in Arizona.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Mr. Dittemore said, referring to tracking bits of the 6-by-6 inch thermal tiles that covered Columbia. "But that is not going to keep us from looking for it."
Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss stressed that recovering the remains of Columbia's seven-member crew was a priority. Authorities confirmed about 15 sites where human remains have been found in the county, Sheriff Kerss said. He declined to provide details.
He also said federal agents were heading to a home to look for stolen shuttle parts.
No arrests have been made, he said.
Eventually, the shuttle pieces will be shipped to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where they were being collected in a sprawling hangar. The goal is to try to reconstruct what's left of Columbia and establish a sequence of how each part peeled off during the spacecraft's ill-fated journey home.

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