I’m at a loss to describe what an incredibly powerful day we had in Hemphill, Texas, on this the fifteenth anniversary of the Columbia accident.
We spent Wednesday night at the Fin and Feather Resort on the Toledo Bend Reservoir six miles south of Hemphill. (This was the base for Navy salvage operations during the Columbia recovery.) The Sabine County Memorial Committee threw a nice Texas-style party for us in the resort’s convention center that evening.
Thursday morning began at a 7:45 service at Hemphill’s First Baptist Church. The service included a remembrance of the crew of STS-107 and the two men who perished during the recovery effort. Following that were tributes to the people of East Texas delivered by NASA officials: Gerry Schumann, who worked for four months in the recovery in Hemphill; Sean O’Keefe, former Administrator of NASA; Mike Leinbach, former Shuttle Launch Director; Ellen Ochoa, Director of Johnson Space Center; and Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. All reiterated the undying gratitude that NASA feels to the people of Texas—and thousands of Americans from across the country—who labored so selflessly to find Columbia’s crew and recover the evidence that enabled NASA to return the space shuttle fleet to flight.
Mike described his impressions on first seeing the landscape on our drive into the area yesterday. He said it had been hard for him to picture the density of the pine forests and the distances that the searchers had to cover during the recovery. He left it simply, “When I was working with the debris in the reconstruction hangar, I just did not appreciate what people had to go through to get it to us.”
Bill Gerstenmaier let the people of Hemphill know that, “whenever you step outside before sunrise or after sunset and see the International Space Station fly overhead, you should know that bright star is there because of what you did.”
The spouses of four of Columbia’s crew were on hand during the service: Evelyn Husband Thompson, widow of commander Rick Husband; Sandy Anderson, widow of mission specialist Michael Anderson; Jean-Pierre “J. P.” Harrison, husband of Kalpana “KC” Chawla; and Jonathan Clark, husband of mission specialist Laurel Clark. I had the honor of meeting and talking with all four of them after the service. They all asked Mike and me to sign copies of the book for them, and J.P. also took a copy of the book for Lani McCool.
We drove over to the museum, uncertain whether there would be any books there for us to sign! A delay in the second printing led to a late shipment of the books from the distributor. Belinda Gay rode herd on our publisher all week. As of the evening of January 31, it appeared that the shipment had not left the distribution center. Just before the memorial service started, Belinda told me that she had heard that one box of books had left Shreveport bound for Nacogdoches overnight. She had dispatched someone to intercept the shipment when it arrived at Nacogdoches at 9 a.m. and to drive the box directly to the museum. It was only going to be 24 books, but combined with the 10 books our agent brought us in Houston on Wednesday, it would be better than nothing.
For some reason, I was too stupid or too trusting or too much of a Pollyanna to believe that there would ever be a problem with getting the books to Hemphill on the day of the anniversary. I just couldn’t let that possibility enter my mind. I just smiled and waited.
Just as Mike and I arrived at the museum, the driver arrived with the box! The museum was already mobbed with people waiting for us to sign the books they had brought with them from home. Mike and I were so overwhelmed that we failed to notice the congratulatory cake that the museum staff had prepared for us. (Apologies, everyone!)
We started signing at 10:00 and kept going for two hours without a pause. Some people brought with them six or more copies of the book that they had purchased from Amazon for family and friends. Many people had books signed for their children and grandchildren. All were genuinely thrilled that we had chosen to tell the story of the miraculous deeds of the people in this corner of the world. And they were justifiably proud of their contributions to the recovery. And I enjoyed seeing that many of them had signed each other’s books, too. What a fantastic way to connect!
It was a joy to meet these wonderful folks, shake their hands, have our picture taken with them, and hear their stories of how the Columbia accident affected them.
As Mike and I kept signing books, we wondered where they were all coming from! It turned out that the other three boxes of books that Belinda ordered showed up unexpectedly. The museum now had ninety books for sale. Everyone who wanted a book got one. And the museum made a lot of money from the sales. It felt like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
As Belinda and Marsha say, “It’s a God thing.”
I also believe it is due to the hard work Belinda put into tracking down those shipments, and the efforts that the staff at Skyhorse Publishing put into making this possible. I’m grateful that it worked out so perfectly, and I thank everyone who worked so hard on our behalf. The end result was a LOT of happy people in Hemphill and two very happy authors.
The Tyler, Texas TV station interviewed Mike and me briefly, and then we went to lunch at the church’s family center. You wouldn’t believe the spread of food contributed by the townspeople. You could have had just one teaspoon of food from each of the dishes and still overflowed your plate.
We left from the church for a side trip to two very special sites near town. The first is the “nose cone site,” the place where Columbia’s nose cap came to Earth. The large rounded piece of reinforced carbon-carbon and some supporting structure had crashed through the trees and created a small crater in the forest floor. The US Forest Service helped NASA removed the wreckage from the site, and the piece now resides in the Columbia Preservation Office at Kennedy Space Center. A few PVC pipes mark the perimeter of the indentation that still exists, 15 years later. The Sabine County Memorial Committee has been trying for years to purchase the land to turn the site into a memorial grove. Hopes are high that it can happen sometime in the next couple of years.
We then visited the American Hero site, where the first remains of a Columbia crew member were found on February 1, 2003, barely an hour after the accident. It’s a touching reminder of the reverence with which the community still regards Columbia’s crew.
We returned to the museum, where Mike graciously helped judge a robotics competition amongst area high schools. After another TV interview, our day wrapped up at about four o’clock. I drove Mike and Jane by the VFW hall outside town, so they could see the place that served as the command center in Sabine County during the recovery. It’s hard to imagine now the days when there were police cruisers parked more than one quarter mile along the road leading to the hall every morning.
We had a few beers to celebrate and unwind in the bar overlooking the lake. The day was such a whirlwind that it’s difficult to take it all in. My predominant emotion is unadulterated joy at being back here on the anniversary, as I promised to Marsha and Belinda two years ago, with a book that celebrates Columbia and the people who brought her home. There’s a sense of pride in a mission accomplished. I feel tremendous love for these wonderful people who have enfolded us in such a warm embrace. I’m delighted that Mike was able to make the trip and make this connection, too.
It’s fantastic to see folks again. Sheriff Maddox told me that I have a “get out of jail free” any time I’m in town. Marie “Little Grannie” Nelson brought us banana bread. Jan Amen made us Smoky the Bear dish cloths! Don Eddings, Don Iles, Mike Alexander, Olen Bean, Roger Gay, Jamie Sowell, and so many others—how great to catch up with you.
And Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay…what more can you say about two women who have kept the memory and magic of that time alive? I’m deeply grateful to you as always. Thank you.
My heart goes out to Greg Cohrs, who received word during the memorial service that his mother had passed away. Now February 1 will mark two times when Greg’s life changed forever. Greg, I’m deeply sorry for your loss.
We are headed back to Houston again tomorrow for the last leg of our Texas trip.
I know we’ll be back here in Hemphill again.