- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

LUFKIN, Texas, March 28 (UPI) — Air operations were suspended Friday in the recovery of space shuttle Columbia debris after two men were killed and three injured in the crash of a search helicopter in southeast Texas.

The crash in the Angelina National Forest about 120 miles northeast of Houston was the first deadly accident in the nearly eight weeks since the Columbia broke apart over Texas, killing seven astronauts.

"All shuttle air operations have been shutdown until we can be assured that they can continue to operate in the safest manner possible," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Stephanie Neal Johnson said Friday.

Ground crews were informed of the accident at camp briefings early Friday and there were "moments of silence" observed before the day's work began, she said.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were to begin their investigation of the crash Friday.

The Bell 407 helicopter crashed about 4:30 p.m. Thursday during search operations, according to officials. The crash site was in a remote area of the forest accessible only by foot or all-terrain vehicles.

William Dickerson of San Augustine told the Lufkin Daily News that he and his nephew witnessed the crash as they were fishing nearby. Dickerson said the helicopter suddenly went silent, and then crashed into the trees.

"When we heard it, we knew what it had to be," he said. "It was just like the motor went dead."

Dickerson said they helped the three survivors and went to the nearest house to call help.

Killed were Charles Krenek, a Texas Forest Service employee from Lufkin, and the pilot, Jules F. "Buzz" Mier, Jr., from Arizona, according to Johnson. Injured were Matt Tschacher, a U.S. Forest Service employee from South Dakota; Richard Lange, an employee of the United Space Alliance at Kennedy Space Center, and Ronnie Dale, a NASA employee at Kennedy.

The injured were taken to a Lufkin hospital but their conditions were not immediately available.

In excess of 1.7 million acres has been searched by ground and air personnel in east Texas and western Louisiana since Feb. 1 More than 42,000 pieces of the shuttle have been recovered, most recently a data recorder that NASA says could reveal critical information in the investigation.

The Texas Forest Service works with the U.S. Forest Service in managing air crews, which fly search grids in coordination with ground crews. Earlier this week they said 36 helicopters were working under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Ten fixed-wing aircraft fly above the helicopters as spotters and communication links.

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