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Texas town forever twinned with Columbia

Five years after Columbia disintegrated 63 kilometers over Texas as it returned from a 16-day mission, one thing is clear: The identity of this tight-knit community will be forever twinned with the fate of Columbia.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bronze medallion embedded in the pavement behind the Commercial Bank of Texas is easy to overlook. About the size of a DVD, it barely registers as a bump for the cars pulling up to use the bank's curbside service window.

But it is there — engraved with the name of the space shuttle Columbia and the date five years ago Friday that it exploded over the skies of East Texas.

The metal disc serves as a quiet tribute to the spot where a piece of the shuttle's wing crashed to Earth in downtown Nacogdoches, and the day this tranquil town of about 30,000 was catapulted into national consciousness.

It is that way all over Nacogdoches, which proudly bills itself as "The Oldest Town in Texas." Inside hotels, homes and offices — everywhere that pieces of STS-107 rained down from the heavens — reminders of that day remain. Some are tucked away meticulously in private memory; others displayed in public memorials.

Five years after Columbia disintegrated 63 kilometers over Texas as it returned from a 16-day mission, one thing is clear: The identity of this tight-knit community will be forever twinned with the fate of Columbia.

"It is something that is still a part of my life, and probably everybody else who had part in this particular mission. And I think it always be," said Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss, who helped lead the recovery efforts following the disaster. "Regardless of how long I live, I will always have a keen awareness of what we had to go through, and the obstacles we overcame to accomplish some of what we did."

It was this town about 217 kilometers north of Houston lay directly under the shuttle's flight path, and so directly under the path of the debris scattered across hundreds of kilometers when Columbia exploded on Feb. 1, 2003, just 16 minutes from landing, killing all seven astronauts on board.

And it was this town that became the epicenter of the search for whatever was left of the shuttle. More than 85,000 pieces that still comprised only about 38 percent of the craft were eventually recovered.

In the first few hours after the explosion, no one knew what to expect.

Townspeople stood on the street staring at the piece of wing that dropped there and was quickly surrounded by armed National Guardsmen. More than 2,000 volunteers and searchers, including the Guard, U.S. Forest Service workers and NASA engineers, as well as reporters, television crews and photographers descended on Nacogdoches and its neighboring towns.

Now, no one will ever forget those weeks in which a small-town community, thrust by happenstance into an American tragedy, discovered an abiding sense of pride in its own fortitude and generosity.

"There was an overwhelming sense of patriotism and of just human emotion of wanting to help and of wanting to do what we could," said Kerss, who keeps photographs of the Columbia on his desk and office walls. "I don't think it's the disaster itself that is the defining moment, I think it's how we respond to adversity. I think our community saw a very positive and professional response to a disaster of such magnitude, and it left them with a sense of pride."

Nacogdoches seems to cradle the events of that day, and the days that followed, with a special reverence.

On a back wall inside the Commercial Bank, the Columbia disaster is memorialized in a collage of photographs, newspaper clippings and handwritten notes. "We rember you Columbia," reads one note in a misspelled childish scrawl.

On the other side of the town square, inside a spacious but musty storefront, hundreds of people have visited the "Memories of Columbia" exhibit, which features NASA artifacts, front page reprints, topographic maps of the search grids and a small model of the shuttle carrying bouquets of dried flowers, tiny stuffed teddy bears and notes bidding farewell to Columbia's crew.

"Like any disaster, great things came out of it and then there are memories I don't really want to go to," said Dr. James C. Kroll, director of the Columbia Geospatial Service Center, which put on the exhibit.

At the Nacogdoches County Expo Center, an 18-hectare complex that served as the staging area for the recovery efforts, wooden bleachers and cavernous dirt-floored barns normally used to stage rodeos and horse shows were transformed into waiting areas and tent housing for hundreds of searchers and volunteers.

On the grounds where livestock are penned and football teams practice, NASA set up a portable trailer where engineers inspected the shuttle remains recovered by search teams or turned in by county residents.

Every day, hundreds of volunteers — undaunted by the sleet and freezing temperatures of early February — appeared at the gates and offered to assist in the search, recalled Bill Plunkett, a retired Houston police officer who manages the Expo Center.

"In this part of East Texas, that's just common. It's so gratifying to know that people will come out in force, knowing there's no compensation, that their names are not going to be written on billboards, and that when they leave from here no one will know what they did except for themselves," said Plunkett. "They do it because there's a purpose for it, and the purpose is to help someone else."

And at 5 a.m. each morning in the aftermath, just before the search crews set off to scour through dense pine forests and brush booby-trapped with thorns thick enough to slice through clothing, the workers offered up a soft prayer and named the seven astronauts lost in the explosion:

Commander Rick Husband. Michael Anderson. David Brown. Kalpana Chawla. Laurel Clark. William McCool. Ilan Ramon.

"I'll never forget about it, and the people who volunteered never will. It was part of something you gave of yourself to help someone else you never knew," Plunkett said. "Being 50 years old, I grew up with NASA as it grew, seeing the first man go into space, seeing the first man walk on the moon. You feel connected to that, and when something like that happens, you can't think of anything but how can I help."