Six years ago, Gary McKee joined hundreds of volunteers and public safety officers to comb through East Texas. They were looking for remains of the space shuttle Columbia, that exploded and fell to earth February 1, 2003.
Saturday, February 1st, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was reported missing over Texas. What had become back-page news – that another shuttle was circling the earth – was brought to the front page by this horrible event. The marvelous feat of engineering that propels humans into space was again on people’s minds.
The importance of the shuttle to Texas has been symbolized by the fact that the shuttle is on most Texas license plates. The Columbia was not missing for long when reports began filtering in — of debris hitting the ground in a several hundred mile long corridor across the state. Search teams were hastily formed in the confusion of the huge impact area. On Sunday, search teams became more organized.
Monday morning, the Lufkin, Texas, newspaper reported that the financially-strapped county of Sabine on the Louisiana border was having difficulty supplying the resources for searches in the dense forest. After a call to the Sabine County sheriff’s department, I found that volunteers were being gratefully accepted. I packed my vehicle and headed east toward the small towns of Bronson and Hemphill.
My first inkling of what was already in progress was a Black Hawk helicopter crisscrossing the highway in a search pattern. Small orange flags signifying debris began appearing in the ditches. The reality of the search started to set in when crosses accompanied some of the flags. Glimpses of search teams in the woods and the eerily abandoned law enforcement vehicles along the road intensified the mood. To see a Texas Department of Public Safety vehicle by itself, in the middle of nowhere, is akin to seeing a riderless horse entering town after the sheriff had ridden it out of town.
Stopping at a small store in Bronson, I verified my directions. Several of the locals were discussing the mispronunciation of local towns by the media. These conversations were quite similar to ones I heard when a manhunt was covered by the media in Central Texas.
Arriving at the local command center, the Sabine County VFW near Hemphill, I was greeted by the sight of Texas National Guard trucks staged in the rodeo grounds. The parking lot was crammed with law enforcement vehicles of all flavors and search crews returning from their day’s work.
The interior of the large VFW was a colorful mixture of public service organizations. The reflective uniforms of the U.S. Forest Service, Texas Forest Service, National Guard, sheriffs, policemen, firemen, DPS, and clothing of the volunteers presented a rainbow of optimism. The local volunteer fire departments were well represented and provided invaluable geographical information.
After checking in, I was told to report back at 6:30 the next morning. Lodging was offered throughout the area. Motels gave discounts, churches and schools boarded searchers. There was even a list of people offering free rooms in their homes. The next morning, crews were assigned, and after a briefing, we boarded local school buses.
Once the crews were dropped off in the field, a surreal environment was entered. The teams, averaging 20 persons, lined up 20 feet apart and on command began their journey through the woods. So as not to lose anyone, the line was kept as straight as possible by keying off the person to their either left or right, depending upon the situation. People were walking straight into eight-foot-high briar patches and through brush with visibility of six feet, crisscrossing creeks, and, occasionally, strolling in the woods. One person might have a nice walk, while the next team member was enmeshed in a briar tangle, 20 feet away. It was everyone’s job to forge on through without help, as that would break the line. Our team leaders, a Jasper County sheriff and a U.S. Forest Service employee, kept us moving forward.
It was an interesting personal conflict for us all. Your natural instincts said to walk around those briars, yet you had the feeling that if you did, you would miss some remains that had fallen in the middle of them. When you were cursing your painful situation, the thoughts of why you were there would minimize those feelings, and you pushed on, ignoring the rain, thorns and fatigue.
Our search team used humor both to relieve the tension and to help keep track of everyone’s position. The humor was of a goofy type, not dark humor.
The tedium of several hours’ searching was occasionally broken by the discovery of a piece of the remains. All of us were glad when it was a piece of the shuttle and not a human remain. No one wanted to find a human remain, yet we all knew that was the primary reason we were there…to help bring closure to the families of the astronauts.
To intensify the dreamlike circumstances, whenever a piece of the shuttle was found, it was difficult to comprehend that here, in the middle of these peaceful woods, was a circuit board that had orbited the earth thousands of times. The board had left the disintegrating shuttle over North Texas, “flew” hundreds of miles, and landed softly on a cushion of leaves, with all the appearance of someone laying it there.
At the end of the day, though we could hardly lift our legs — bodies was scratched and clothing was soaked with sweat and rain — we had a good feeling that we’d had helped out families in need.
The Sabine County VFW and citizens of Sabine County prepared hot food three times a day, for approximately 400 people. They arrived at 3:30 a.m. to begin cooking breakfast for the search crews heading out into the brush of East Texas. A huge buffet, catering to every taste, was provided in the evening. This gave the hungry and cold search crews crawling through the woods something to look truly forward to. Enough gratitude could never be expressed by the search crews.
The Salvation Army and American Red Cross were great allies of the searchers. When lunch time approached and you came to a logging road, a truck would appear with sandwiches and drinks. This resource from the outside world helped lessen the remoteness that you were experiencing. Handfuls of high carbohydrate and sugary snack foods were given out by the Salvation Army to keep us moving through the woods.
To be in the midst of hundreds of people responding quickly to a distressing situation — the giving of time, energy and resources to respond to a very human and urgent event — was to experience the American spirit.
Gary E. McKee, a historian of Texas, hails from Fayette County and lives in Carmine. His essay first appeared in Texas Escapes.