The Sky Is Falling

February 1, 8:05 a.m. CST
Deep East Texas

While the team at Kennedy Space Center wondered where Columbia was, the citizens of Deep East Texas wondered what terrible disaster was being visited upon them from the sky. It was the supreme moment of parallel confusion.

People were waking up to a chilly, foggy Saturday morning.  Starting just after 8 a.m., the ground began shaking and the air was filled with a sound that was impossible to describe. A continuous cavalcade of staccato booms and blasts lasted several minutes. Houses shook to their foundations. Windows vibrated so violently that people thought they would break.

In Sabine County, US Forest Service law officer Doug Hamilton was convinced it was Judgment Day. He opened the front door of his house, prepared to meet Jesus.

Less than a year and a half after the attacks of September 11, 2001, timber sale forester Greg Cohrs wondered if a terrorist nuclear blast had destroyed Houston or New Orleans.

In the small town of Hemphill, near the border with Louisiana, children and their parents were gathered in the barn of the youth arena for the first-day weigh-in for the county’s livestock show. The open-sided building began to shudder and shake as the sound of “sonic booms times one thousand” tore the air. Elementary school teacher Sunny Whittington ran outside and saw dozens of smoke trails—some corkscrewing across the sky, others continuing straight. Her husband speculated that two planes has collided above the town.

Some people heard sounds like helicopter blades, as pieces of metal whirled through the air and hit the ground around them. Dogs ran in circles, barking at the sky.

Fishermen on Toledo Bend Reservoir saw something that appeared to be the size of a compact car hit the water at high speed. The ensuing wave nearly swamped their boat.

Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox was in his office in Hemphill. The building shook so hard that he thought the roof of the jail collapsed. Almost immediately afterward, all of his phone lines lit up. One person reported a train derailment at one end of the county. Another reported a plane crash. Yet another said that the natural gas pipeline traversing the county had exploded. What the heck was going on?

Unknown to most residents at the moment, the space shuttle Columbia, traveling at Mach 12 and more than 180,000 feet in altitude, had disintegrated at about 8:00 in a “catastrophic event” over Palestine, Texas. Most citizens were not even aware that a shuttle mission was in progress that day.

For the next half hour, debris from the ship—and the remains of her crew—rained down along a path 250 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The constant thunderous noise heard by the residents was caused by more than 80,000 pieces of the shuttle, each breaking the sound barrier and creating its own sonic boom as it fell to the ground.

Within half an hour, word spread about news reports that Columbia had crashed.

The town of Nacogdoches, 60 miles west of Hemphill, was in the direct path of the disintegrating shuttle. Metallic debris was coming down everywhere around the town.

Law enforcement began responding to debris sightings. Word came from NASA that the material might be contaminated with toxic fuels. The location of everything found was to be GPS recorded if possible, with items left in place for subsequent collection.

By noon that first day, the remains of a Columbia crew member had been located. Mark Kelly was the first NASA astronaut on the scene. Along with Maddox, FBI special agent Terry Lane, and Hemphill Baptist pastor “Brother Fred” Raney, they conducted a short service for the fallen astronaut. For the next two weeks, a NASA astronaut, Maddox, an FBI special agent, and Raney would be at the recovery of each of Columbia‘s crew and perform the solemn service at the “chapel in the woods.”

Meanwhile, an Incident Command Post was  established at Hemphill’s volunteer fire department. Billy Ted Smith, the emergency management coordinator for the East Texas Mutual Aid Association, shared the role of incident commander with Sheriff Maddox for the Sabine, Jasper, and Newton County area.

Greg Cohrs was called in and tasked with organizing the response to the hundreds of reports that were pouring into the fire station. As the day wore on, the situation became more chaotic, as concerned citizens sidetracked the volunteers who were attempting to respond to the debris reports. Cohrs eventually restored order and began planning a more methodical response to the situation.

As evening came, Cohrs had plotted what he believed was the centerline of the debris field through Sabine County. He would organize searches for Columbia‘s crew beginning at daybreak the next morning.

Next time: Barksdale and Lufkin

etoile-vfd-on-103-site-a
The Etoile (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department responds to the first confirmed sighting of Columbia debris in their community, February 1, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

3 thoughts on “The Sky Is Falling”

  1. This is an excellent account of the debris field portion of the space shuttle Columbia preventable return tragedy. The one point I would strongly dispute is that “most people” in Texas did not know a space shuttle mission was in progress. Even with a near news blackout from corporate sources, that is simply not so! But it is unfortunately true that many people had not been closely following the flight. I am curious as to which unspecified astronaut was located by midday on Saturday 1 February 2003.

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    1. Good point, Alfred! I should clarify that most of the people I interviewed in Sabine County said they were not aware of the shuttle being in flight. As to the astronaut who was found: out of respect to the families of the crew, NASA has never released any information regarding the identity or location of the crew recoveries. The information was encoded and only a couple personnel had access to that data.

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