Saturday, January 31, 2004

HEMPHILL, Texas (AP) — Within hours of the discovery of an astronaut’s remains on an East Texas road last year, residents in this small town used two pine tree trunks to erect a cross at the site.

The cross remains, adorned with a sign engraved with the words: “American Hero.”

But residents say the makeshift memorial isn’t enough of a tribute to the seven Columbia astronauts who died a year ago today, when their space shuttle broke apart over Texas.

“This is where the mission ended for those astronauts,” said Sabine County Judge Jack Leath. “It impacted us. We just are of the opinion that there should be a memorial to these people.”

Communities in East and West Texas, where Columbia astronauts Rick Husband and William McCool grew up, said they hope to erect permanent memorials. In the meantime, tributes were planned in at least three East Texas communities today.

Sabine County officials would like to eventually build a trail, memorial and museum on 10 acres of donated land in the eastern part of the state where Columbia’s nose cone was discovered.

They have talked with Boeing Corp. about donating a nose cone replica for the site. The land will remain in its natural rugged state so visitors can experience the briars and other obstacles searchers overcame, said Belinda Gay, a Hemphill resident who searched for debris and organized volunteers for the massive hunt.

Residents would like to see monuments in Hemphill, Nacogdoches and Lufkin linked together to form the “Space Shuttle Columbia Corridor” stretching across the swath where debris fell.

“We want the families to be able to come here and find peace, not sadness,” Miss Gay said of the astronauts’ survivors. “We feel like their families became our family Feb. 1 and their mission became our mission. We sent them home.”

Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss said the search took its toll on everyone, especially when searchers found the astronauts’ personal items, such as a tennis shoe or toothbrush.

“We had searchers who would drop down on their knees and cry and say a prayer,” he said. “We tried to treat all of those sites with solemnness and dignity.”

Sheriff Kerss worries that many will forget the shuttle and its crew, but said East Texans never will. Still, he said there needs to be a “visual reminder that our community went through this tragedy.”

In West Texas, where shuttle commander Husband and pilot McCool lived as boys, a number of memorials are planned or already in place.

The track at Lubbock’s Coronado High School, where McCool was an avid runner, was named after him. A statue of him eventually will go up in the city, said his mother, Audrey McCool.

In Amarillo, where Cmdr. Husband grew up, the airport has been named after him.

This week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, introduced a bill seeking $5 million to help turn the East Texas memorials into a reality and to allow other cities to create them.

The memorials are an important way for people involved in the debris search and other aspects of the space program to come to terms with what happened, Cmdr. Husband’s wife, Evelyn, said.

But it also can be overwhelming.

“It’s hard in the sense that it continues on,” Audrey McCool said. “It is like you have a series of funerals. Then, there is another.”

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