Meeting the Heroes of Deep East Texas

Two years ago this week, I was in Hemphill, Texas to conduct interviews for “Bringing Columbia Home.” Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper of Hemphill’s Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum had graciously provided space in the museum to conduct the interviews, and had arranged for several dozen people to meet with me.

I flew into Houston, rented a car, and then made the two-hour drive to Hemphill. The flatlands and concrete jungle of the Houston area gradually gave way to a more scenic, wooded environment. (I made sure to stop for a Whataburger on the way north!) By the time I turned off at Lufkin and started heading east, I was now following in the path of the debris from Columbia as it broke apart in the morning sky on February 1, 2003. I tried hard to imagine what it was like on that chilly, foggy morning when the silence was pierced by the thunder of the reentry of the debris, and as thousands of pieces came to earth over a 250-mile-long path. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The forest grew thicker the farther east I drove, and I passed along the Sam Rayburn Reservoir before arriving in Sabine County and Hemphill.

IMG_1156I made the mistake of turning off my cell phone when I got out of the car to look around town. I had no cell service when I tried to power it back up again—and I was relying on it to show me the way to my motel! Fortunately, I managed to find my way there. My lodging for the night was in a beautiful set of cottages overlooking the Toledo Bend Reservoir. (The lack of cell service was even more of an issue for the NASA search teams back in 2003, to the extent that Verizon brought in temporary cell towers so that the searchers could communicate with each other and their search coordinators.)

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Doug Hamilton (left) and Tom Maddox

From the very first interview the next morning, I was overwhelmed with the graciousness and goodness of these people. They were all eager to share their stories of a pivotal time in their lives and in the life of their community. My first interviews were with Doug Hamilton, a law enforcement officer from the US Forest Service, and Sheriff Tom Maddox of Sabine County. They were among the first responders on the scene when debris from Columbia was positively identified—and the remains of the first of Columbia‘s crew were discovered.

 

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Hemphill’s VFW hall

Later that morning I interviewed “Squeaky” and Byron Starr, the town’s funeral directors, who played key roles in recovering the remains of Columbia‘s crew with dignity and discretion. I also talked with Roger Gay, the commander of the town’s VFW at the time of the accident. The VFW hall would become the focal point of activity for the thousands of searchers who descended on Hemphill for the recovery of the ship and her crew.

The afternoon was reserved for speaking with some of the townspeople who volunteered to do anything they could to help in the recovery. Dwight Riley was 65 years old in 2003, but he didn’t let his age interfere with searching the woods. He recalled finding a “Lift-the-Dot” type of snap lying on the ground in the woods and wondering, “Where did that come from? Was it on a harness, or a wall, or a uniform? How did that come from space to land here?” As he reflected on the events of that February, he broke into tears, saying that it was the most rewarding thing he’d ever done in his life.

Mrs. Hivie McCowan, now 90 years old, told about hearing the horrible noise on that fateful morning. She recalled that the local authorities asked everyone to search their property for pieces of the shuttle, but she was afraid that she might encounter remains of the crew. She found a large piece of metal frame from Columbia in her back yard. She was one of the many people who volunteered to serve food to searchers at the VFW Hall. This quote from her interview illustrates what the experience was like for so many people:

I handled more tea than I’ll ever handle in my lifetime. And the people that I served, you wouldn’t want anybody to be any nicer. The guys that come through, they seemed so nice and mannerly. I never heard a foul word or nothing come out of all them men’s mouth that come through. And you know, usually somebody’ll act up. But they didn’t. And I was serving tea. They had sweet tea and they had, you know, tea without sugar, unsweetened. So I got to the place to let ’em know what I was serving. I’d just, I’d say “Sweet tea,” and they’d come to me. I’d say, “Sweet tea,”–and the other was serving other tea–I’d say, “Sweet tea? Sweet tea?” I said “Sweet tea” so long, until they named me ‘Sweet Tea.’ Dr., let me see, what was his name–. Dr. Somebody out of Beaumont, I forget his name. He called me Sweet Tea first, and then the rest of ’em went to calling me Sweet Tea, and I was just serving tea. I helped serve food, too. It was awesome.

The next two days of interviews included other participants in the search, both officials and volunteers. Jamie Sowell of the US Forest Service spoke about his organizing and leading search teams into the woods during the first two weeks of February. School teacher Sunny Whittington described how she was inspired to have her elementary school class make hundreds of sandwiches to feed the searchers, each lunch containing a handwritten note of encouragement from one of the children. Another of the searchers I spoke to that week recalled the note in his lunch bag, and he broke into tears telling me about how deeply meaningful that gesture was to him in such a difficult time.

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Stakes mark a shallow depression still remaining from where Columbia‘s “nose cone” crashed through the trees and impacted the ground outside Hemphill. Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper have been actively advocating to turn this site into a memorial park. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Felix Holmes of the US Forest Service was involved in the recovery of Columbia‘s nose cap, which was found in the woods outside Hemphill. He bulldozed a clearing so that a helicopter could attempt to airlift the structure out of the woods. When high winds thwarted the airlift, he bulldozed a path for a four-wheeler and trailer to get back to the site. Holmes was also instrumental in creating a path in Ayish Bayou for rescuers to reach the site of the fatal search helicopter crash in March 2003.

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Greg Cohrs (left) of the US Forest Service and Olen Bean of the Texas Forest Service.

Greg Cohrs of the US Forest Service was pressed into service on the morning of February 1, 2003 to try to bring order out of the chaos of the initial response to the accident. Cohrs went on to coordinate the search operations in Sabine County in the first two weeks of February, during the search for the crew’s remains. He also continued to be involved throughout the debris recovery effort that lasted until late April. He kept a detailed journal of his day-by-day activities during that period. He graciously shared that with us, and he became a key consultant—and good friend—to Mike Leinbach and me as we put the book together. We believe that Greg’s accounts of the daily struggles and the highs and lows of the search operations truly make “Bringing Columbia Home” a gripping account of the human drama of that intense period. We’ll forever be indebted to Greg for his contributions.

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Marie Nelson and me

Miss Marie “Little Granny” Nelson was overwhelming in her kindness toward me. She brought me a chocolate cake one day, banana pudding another day, and gave me a blue sequined cowboy hat and Texas flag shirt another day. She was yet another of the volunteers who helped make life easier for the searchers. She recalled talking to National Guardsmen who were bivouacked in the gym of Hemphill’s high school. One of the guard asked her, “Ma’am, where are we?” She went to the library and photocopied maps of the area to help these people get their bearings relative to the rest of Texas.

Mike Alexander was another volunteer searcher. He recalled the emotions of the search effort, and also talked about how the town responded. One of the ways that townspeople helped was to open their homes to other volunteers who had no place to stay during the search, as there are few fish camps or motels in the area. He recalled talking to one man on his crew, Dan Sauerwein, who worked at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center. Sauerwein had driven up from JSC to help with the search and was sleeping in his car. Alexander told him, “You’re staying at my house from now on.”

One of the great coincidences that made putting this book together so powerful for me is that Dan Sauerwein later contacted me via Facebook. He recalled Alexander’s generosity but had lost touch with him over the years. I was able to put the two of them back in contact with each other.

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Belinda Gay, Jonathan, and Marsha Cooper.

Throughout this overwhelming period of interviews, Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay kept me organized and also filled in a lot of details. They were of course both deeply involved in the recovery. Belinda solicited the food donations and coordinated the volunteers who served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals at the VFW during February 2003. Marsha was in the first search teams to go into the woods after the accident to look for Columbia‘s crew, and she coordinated much of the interface between the media and the US Forest Service during the recovery operations.

Gay and Cooper were also the driving force behind establishing the Columbia museum in Hemphill—an incredible test of perseverance in overcoming bureaucracy and people who wished simply to forget that the accident ever happened. Their efforts will, I believe, ultimately be as important in preserving the legacy of Columbia as those of the NASA officials who preserved Columbia‘s debris for future study.

One afternoon, we drove out to see where some of the searches had taken place. We visited the “nose cone” site, where Columbia‘s reinforced carbon-carbon nose cap and its supporting structure came to earth. Gay and Cooper have been actively trying since 2003 to turn this into a National Memorial to commemorate Columbia and the deeds of the people of East Texas in recovering the ship and her crew. They even solicited design proposals from architecture students at Texas A&M University.

Columbia crew resting placeWe also stopped by the site where the first of Columbia‘s crew were recovered on the morning of the accident. The landowner erected a simple cross saying “American Hero” shortly after the accident. It is a stark and sobering reminder of the human cost of space exploration.

My short visit to Hemphill was one of the most moving experiences in my life. I left there forever changed—completely overwhelmed by what everyday people can do when suddenly thrown into responding to an extraordinary event. I hope that “Bringing Columbia Home” will pay some small measure of homage to these incredible people who are truly American heroes.

The 4th quarter 2017 issue of “Texas Roadways” magazine will be doing a feature story on Hemphill and the Remembering Columbia Museum.

Hurricane Harvey

The scenes of floodwaters and devastation in Houston and southeast Texas are almost unbelievable.

We know that this is an awful time for everyone in the affected area. Our words, thoughts, prayers—all are completely inadequate to express our sorrow for what our friends are going through right now and our hopes that you are all okay.

If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that Texans have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be an incredibly strong and supportive people. No doubt the same spirit of tenacity, caring, and dedication that you demonstrated during the Columbia tragedy will also see you through this disaster.

Our hearts are with you.

East Texas Comes to Kennedy Space Center

On August 12, 2003, Roger and Belinda Gay came to Kennedy Space Center from Hemphill, Texas. It was an opportunity for NASA to thank them for their overwhelming service in the recovery of Columbia and her crew.

When Columbia broke up over East Texas on February 1, 2003, the remains of her crew came to Earth in Sabine County, as did much of the debris from the crew module and the forward end of the orbiter. The population of the small town of Hemphill in Sabine County tripled overnight, as thousands of people came to town to search for the crew. The sudden influx of people was far more than the few restaurants and motels in town could accommodate.

Roger Gay was the commander of Hemphill’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, and his wife Belinda was chair of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. On the day of the accident, the local incident command team asked Roger if the VFW hall could provide some sandwiches for the searchers. He quickly became overwhelmed as the number of searchers skyrocketed. He asked his wife Belinda, who had been helping search the woods for Columbia‘s crew, to coordinate efforts to help feed and support the searchers.

Over the next several days, Belinda made hundreds of phone calls to ask the people of Sabine County and the neighboring communities for help. The outpouring of support was the stuff of which legends are made, and we talk about it at length in our book. All told, the community provided and served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals to the search teams in Sabine County, at no cost to the taxpayer. The people of Sabine County also invited searchers to stay at their homes, did their laundry, bought them dry socks…the list goes on. Strong bonds were formed between the searchers and the people of the community.

Belinda knew that something of tremendous significance had happened in that time. “I can’t explain it except to say that we witnessed a miracle in action,” she later told Spaceport News. She felt called to preserve the memory of Columbia‘s crew, the two recovery workers who died in a helicopter crash, and the good works of the people of East Texas. Before the summer even started, she and her friend Marsha Cooper from the US Forest Service began investigating options for creating a memorial park in Sabine County.

NASA invited the Gays to visit Kennedy Space Center that summer. On August 12, they visited one of the Orbiter Processing Facilities and met some of the workers who had prepared Columbia for her last mission. Then they toured the hangar where work on reconstructing Columbia‘s debris was wrapping up.

Belinda told Spaceport News, “We needed to come here. Seeing the hangar was a very emotional experience and gave us some sense of closure.”

Gays visit reconstruction hangar
The Gays visit the Reconstruction Hangar on August 12, 2003. From left, Roger Gay, his son Chad, daughter Andrea, wife Belinda, and Belinda’s cousin Milt Watts. (Spaceport News, September 5, 2003)

Sharing the Story at Spacefest VIII

Last month, I was privileged to be able to speak at Spacefest VIII in Tucson, Arizona about the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia.

For those of you who haven’t been able to attend a Spacefest, it’s an incredible experience. You’ll meet Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle astronauts, planetary scientists, futurists, historians, artists, authors, and hundreds of everyday people who are enthused by space exploration. The wonderful people at Novaspace make this an experience you’ll never forget.

As the co-author of the upcoming book on the Columbia accident, I was invited to speak about the events of 2003. Joining me on the dais was astronaut Jerry Ross, who shared his first-hand accounts of working with the crew and in the search for the vehicle’s debris after the accident, as well as the near-miss he had on STS-27—the most heavily-damaged spacecraft ever to return safely.

I recorded the audio from the presentation and from the ensuing question-and-answer period. I’ve since incorporated a few more images and some video editing to help make the photos tell the story even more clearly. Jerry Ross graciously agreed to allow me to include his commentary in this video.

Here’s the link to the talk on YouTube.

I am NOT a practitioner of “Death by PowerPoint.” You’ll need to have the audio turned on as you watch this presentation, as there are no bullet-point slides—none. It’s all photos and a few maps, which illustrate the story I tell.

The video is one hour long. I hope you’ll enjoy it and learn from what one audience member called “a moving and surprisingly inspirational presentation”!

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Jonathan Ward and Jerry Ross answer audience questions at Spacefest VIII. (Photo by Brad McKinnon)

The Columbia Recovery Phase Ends

Thanks to the tireless and incredibly efficient efforts of the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, FEMA, EPA, and NASA, recovery operations wrapped up at the end of April and beginning of May in 2003.

From the middle of February through the end of April, the Type 1 and Type 2 wildland fire crews from the US Forest Service walked every square foot of an area larger than the state of Rhode Island in their search for debris from Columbia. They painstakingly searched forests, fields, briar patches, farms, ranches, swamps. They dodged bulls, avoided snakes, endured heat and cold, suffered through hailstorms, scratched bug bites, steered clear of suspected meth labs, missed their families, and slept in tents during their two to three weeks in the field. Grid searches turned up thousands of pieces of shuttle material that on average was about one square inch—and in many cases, smaller than a fingernail.

Air crews  logged over 5,000 flight hours in their search efforts. Divers from the Navy, FBI, Houston Police Department, EPA, Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Galveston Police Department conducted more than 3,000 dives and spent more than 800 hours on the bottom of lakes searching for debris from Columbia. The overall water search effort covered twenty-three square miles of lake bed.

Nearly 25,000 men and women from almost every US state participated in the search operations. The combined effort was over 1.5 million man hours. Searchers recovered more than 84,700 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 38 percent of the vehicle’s landing weight. Most emotionally important, the remains of Columbia‘s crew had been recovered and returned to their loved ones.

It was the largest land search and recovery operation in United States history, and the first major incident under the jurisdiction of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Animated graphic showing the progress of the grid searches for Columbia‘s material along the 250-mile-long debris path from February through April 2003. (Courtesy Mark Stanford, Texas Forest Service)

The Palestine, Texas camp closed on April 18. A few days later, the Hemphill collection center closed. Search operations at the western end of the debris field continued for a few more weeks, until the number of pieces being recovered was less than one per grid. All ground operations in Texas ended on April 30, with the Nacogdoches camp closing on May 3 and the Corsicana camp closing the following day. Search operations moved to Utah on May 2 for eight days, as radar had tracked some objects falling off the shuttle during its flight over the state. However, no shuttle debris was ever recovered west of Littlefield, Texas.

 

NASA’s Space Flight Awareness organization sponsored a huge dinner at the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29 to celebrate the end of the search operations and to thank the local communities and agencies for their help. The scale of the event was impressive. NASA’s Ed Mango likened it to the celebration scene in the movie, The Right StuffJan Amen from the Texas Forest Service reported, “Dinner was steak and chicken, green beans, rice, rolls, salad, pie, all prepared by the Diboll Country Club. Free drinks flowed freely.”

It was the kind of party that only Texans know how to throw.

Banquet - The Crowd
Part of the crowd at the banquet in the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Administrator Sean O’Keefe hosted the event for NASA, and Scott Wells spoke on behalf of FEMA. County judges and civic leaders from every county in East Texas were on hand. County Judge Jack Leath, Tom Maddox, Greg Cohrs, Roger and Belinda Gay, Marsha Cooper, and a host of other people represented Sabine County. Dignitaries from the various Native American Tribes and Nations attended. An astronaut sat at every table.

Astronaut Dom Gorie opened the ceremony with a heartfelt invocation that brought tears to the eyes of nearly everyone present. The Expedition Six crew sent a live video message from the International Space Station. A video about the Columbia crew followed.

O’Keefe and NASA’s Dave King, who was in charge of the recovery operation, presented plaques recognizing the nation’s appreciation for the contributions of the people at every table in the hall. The spouses of Columbia’s crew spoke of their gratitude to the people of East Texas for bringing their loved ones home again. Eileen Collins closed the ceremony on behalf of the next shuttle crew scheduled to fly in space.

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Evelyn Husband, wife of Columbia’s Commander Rick Husband, conveys her thanks to the people of Texas. (Photo by Jan Amen)

It was a fitting and emotional close to a tumultuous three months. The people of East Texas had provided the nation and the world with an enduring lesson in how to handle a crisis with dignity, compassion, and competence. They met and worked side by side with astronauts, rocket scientists, engineers, technicians, and fire crews from across the country. In return, they had the satisfaction of knowing that they had gone far beyond the call of duty in the hopes of returning the American shuttle fleet to flight again.

At the end of the evening, after Jan Amen dropped off her last load of astronauts and families at their hotels in Lufkin, she wrote to a friend, “I absolutely lost it. I squalled all the way back to Cudlipp like a big fat crybaby. I’m whooped!”

[Portions of this blog post are excerpted from Bringing Columbia Home, (c) 2017 by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward.]

What to Do with the Debris?

Fourteen years ago, in early April 2003, we were about 2/3 of the way through recovering Columbia’s debris from Texas, although we didn’t know it at the time. But the number of debris trucks arriving at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center had begun to tail off in the preceding weeks, so we knew at some point they’d stop altogether.

Two initiatives were being worked at that time. First, what to do with the debris, and secondly, how would debris found after operations ended in Texas find its way to us? What were the people finding items after the recovery operations ended to do with the material they found?

I’ll briefly address both now, with the intent to more fully discuss them in subsequent postings.

As stated in a previous entry in this blog, Administrator O’Keefe was instrumental in the decision to learn from Columbia’s accident and in particular, from the debris. Having gotten his unofficial “go” to develop the concept to study the debris, the task to actually put the concept into practice fell on a few of us in the hangar. I asked Scott Thurston, Columbia’s NASA Vehicle Manager, to develop the necessary plans. He did an outstanding job. He and a very small group debated where to store the debris, how to “advertise” that it even existed for study, the requirements for organizations to obtain select pieces, the logistics of lending it to them (it’s not easy lending government property to private organizations), and the proper approval authorities and documents. And, by the way, how to do this for many years to come – also not easy.

The results of their labor and Scott’s leadership are clear. The debris loan program is very much still alive, with several hundred pieces either actively out for study or with studies already concluded. The material is stored in a climate-controlled room in the Vehicle Assembly Building, also allowing easy access for employees to view it. It has a full-time NASA curator—Mike Ciannilli—who also developed and runs NASA’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. Mike was very active in the debris recovery as an aerial searcher in Texas, and his passion for sharing the lessons makes him the perfect person for the job.

As with debris from Challenger, some pieces of Columbia continue to be found. To deal with this in Texas, a program involving local authorities is charged with taking calls from anyone finding pieces that may be from Columbia. They in turn call Ciannilli, who is responsible for determining the authenticity of the find and returning the material to KSC to join the other 84,000+ pieces of the ship’s debris.

The most “famous” piece found in this manner was a cryogenic tank from Columbia‘s fuel cell system that had been submerged in Lake Nacogdoches since February, 2003. A severe drought in the summer of 2011 lowered the lake level to the point that the tank was high and dry.

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An aluminum cryogenic tank from Columbia’s fuel cell system, uncovered in Lake Nacogdoches in August 2011, more than eight years after the accident. (NASA photo)

Numerous other pieces have been found by farmers, ranchers, hikers, etc. I suspect debris will continue to be found from time to time. We know for certain that three of the six main engine turbine pumps are still out there somewhere. But like the three that we recovered, they are no doubt buried deep in the East Texas or Louisiana dirt or at the bottom of a body of water. They will probably never be found.

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One of Columbia’s powerheads—found buried fourteen feet under the Louisiana mud. (NASA photo)

We officially wrapped up recovery operations in early May, 2003. The vast majority of Columbia that we will ever find is already home. And some of it is being used to advance our understanding in materials and structures subjected to extreme conditions. The goal is to design future spacecraft that can better withstand such conditions. One such example is a seat design capable of withstanding very high torsional forces.

Columbia continues her scientific and research missions, well after her last space flight. That legacy would have made her final crew proud.

The Recovery Passes the Halfway Mark

At the beginning of April 2003, the search efforts for recovery of Columbia‘s debris passed the halfway mark.

From the time operations went into full swing at the end of the third week of February, the Texas Forest Service had overseen the mobilization of more than 12,200 men and women from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. These firefighters came from more than forty states and Puerto Rico.

April 1 ground search status
Firefighters came from nearly every US state and Puerto Rico to search for Columbia’s wreckage. This map shows the number of wild land firefighters and support staff deployed by each state as of April 1, 2003. 

They entered the recovery zone through a processing facility set up by the Texas Forest Service in Longview, Texas. After an orientation on what they were looking for and the hazards they might encounter, the fire crews and their supervisory Incident Management Teams were deployed to camps in Corsicana, Palestine, Nacogdoches, and Hemphill. These towns were spaced roughly fifty miles apart along the debris field. The crews then spent two to three weeks conducting grid searches in their assigned areas. Then they were rotated out and replaced by fresh crews.

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Cots for transiting fire crews in the Longview staging camp. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Their efforts produced astonishing results. As of April 2, 2003, the crews had searched every foot of an area of 426,844 acres (667 square miles). They had recovered 65,730 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 29% of the vehicle’s weight. Their efforts were also being supplemented by 37 helicopters, 8 fixed-wing aircraft, and salvage divers and surface boats in Lake Nacogdoches and the Toledo Bend Reservoir.

In this first incident response by the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, FEMA coordinated the federal agencies and funded the operations. NASA managed the overall search and provided technical assistance. The Environmental Protection Agency identified and handled hazardous materials, and transported all materials recovered during the search. The Texas Forest Service coordinated the air and ground searches. The US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service provided the majority of the search crews and equipment. The US Navy and Coast Guard conducted the water searches.

Those are just some of the lead agencies. More than ninety federal, state, and local government agencies assisted in some way with the aftermath of the Columbia accident.

It was on the surface a collaboration of unlikely partners, but each agency brought its core expertise to bear in the largest and most remarkable inter-agency operation ever conducted.

Astronaut Jerry Ross told me during an interview for the book that “people first and foremost need to understand the greatness of the United States and its citizens. The United Sates has an incredible wealth of capabilities. To see the energy and expertise and materials and technical capabilities that descended on Lufkin within hours of the accident was so reassuring.”

In times when we hear people complaining about “government incompetence,” it’s helpful to remember that agencies are made up of people. People—not faceless agencies—get the work done. And we need to know that our federal and state agencies are made up of a lot of motivated and dedicated people who want to see our country be successful.