At first, Texas Forest Service regional forester Bill Rose thought a freight train had derailed. An ear shattering rumble that lasted almost a minute shook the Jacksonville, TX, cafe where he was eating a Saturday morning breakfast.
"I figured we had a railroad derailment or some kind of explosion in town," Rose said. "So I waited to hear the siren."
But a siren never followed. The disaster that had taken place occurred more than 200,000 feet overhead. On reentry, the space shuttle Columbia had broken apart, with thousands of pieces creating a continuous sonic boom above Central and East Texas.
Officially, the mission of the Texas Forest Service is to "assume direction of all forest interests and all matters pertaining to forestry within the jurisdiction of the state." The TFS became one of the primary agencies involved in the recovery of astronaut remains and shuttle debris scattered across some of the most remote areas of the state. Rose and many other TFS personnel would spend all of the next three months assigned to that search and recovery operation.
For Rose and many other Texans, the first moments following the shuttle disaster were confusing and uncertain.
"After about three or four minutes without hearing a siren I called the Jacksonville Fire Department," Rose said. "They asked me to go to a little community just east of Jacksonville because they had a report that an airplane had crashed out there."
While en route, Rose received a call from his wife. Television news was reporting that the shuttle had broken apart less than 16 minutes away from its scheduled landing."I said to myself 'No way, no way that this could happen,'" Rose said.
In College Station, TFS director James B. Hull and his wife were preparing for a road trip to Waco when Mrs. Hull glanced skyward and noticed a bright light streaking through the sky. Hull said he initially dismissed it as the morning sun reflecting off an airliner. However, Mrs. Hull insisted that pieces were breaking away from whatever was streaking across the sky.
"Later that morning we got a call on the way to Waco telling us what had really happened," Hull said. "That's how I got introduced to it -- from the very beginning."
An emergency declaration issued by President Bush made NASA the lead agency for handling the investigation and FEMA the lead agency for response and recovery operations. However, more than 133 federal, state and local agencies would be involved from day one. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry designated the TFS as the lead state agency in the recovery effort. TFS personnel played a key role in operations planning and logistical support in the massive shuttle debris recovery operation, said Mark Stanford, TFS chief of fire operations.
"We were asked to provide incident management support to the five or six counties that were most affected," Stanford said. "We also sent an incident management team to Lufkin to assist the federal agencies and to represent the state." Since Lufkin, deep in East Texas, is also the home of TFS, the agency was asked if it could find a facility to serve as the federal disaster field office. TFS obtained the use of the Lufkin Civic Center.
In particular, the TFS took a leadership role in establishing and implementing the Incident Command System (ICS) in the wake of the disaster, said director Hull.
"ICS is a command and control organizational structure that defines roles and responsibilities," Hull said. "Everybody knows exactly what their job is and how it fits in with everything else. Over the last decade ICS has really proven its worth in the wildland fire community where we have tremendous numbers of folks coming in to deal with a wildfire. ICS is standardized, so it works the same from one end of the country to the other. It provides that necessary structure whether you're dealing with wildfire, tornadoes, hurricanes, civil unrest or, in this case, the shuttle disaster."
TFS has made it a priority in implementing ICS that local authorities be included in the decision making process, Hull said.
"The first thing we do is find the local leaders," Hull said. "We tell them 'This is your disaster and we're here to assist you.' We bring the expertise that might not be locally available. Local officials realize they don't have the resources to deal with it and are more than glad to let you help."
In those early days of the search it was not unusual to find small impromptu memorials spring up, Hull said. Cards, flowers or signs would be left at a central location such as a flag pole. Debris waiting to be collected was often marked with a small U.S. flag. Local residents wanted to make any kind of contribution to the search effort they could, he said.
"On Sunday I drove to Hemphill," Hull said. "Traffic was horrendous and this is only a town of about 1,000 people. I got behind this little old lady driving through the middle of town. When she got to where all the people coordinating this incident were located she pulled over and honked her horn. When somebody went over to check on her she handed them a great big sack of cookies. Then she drove off." Experience in working closely with local officials made TFS "an excellent bridge" between them and federal officials, Hull said. The Incident Command Management team, consisting of 570 personnel primarily from NASA, FEMA, EPA and TFS, quickly established the objectives for the Columbia Shuttle Disaster Incident, Rose said.
"Some very smart people came together and came up with some goals as far as what we were going to try to achieve initially," Rose said.
Priority number one became ensuring public safety. A total of 158 hazardous materials in tanks and cylinders aboard the shuttle had to be located as soon as possible, Rose said. Some of the binary fuel products were toxic in the 50 parts per million range. EPA was called in to test for the presence of hazardous materials. Testing was conducted to determine if any local water supplies had been contaminated by these materials.
"There were people calling up to ask if it was safe to eat the fish or drink the water from Lake Nacogdoches and Toledo Bend," Rose said. In fact, EPA only made 28 actual haz mat responses during the entire incident. Within 48 hours it was determined that shuttle debris was safe to handle.
Some 50 pyrotechnic devices aboard the shuttle such as explosive bolts presented another potential hazard. By mid-April, only 10 of these devices had been accounted for. Locating and recovering the remains of the seven crew members became priority number two, Rose said.
"This was a very sad and disturbing task for all of us," Rose said. "It was hard on everybody involved but we accomplished it within two weeks."Hull said the remains were treated with the utmost dignity at all times.
"Every time remains were found, nothing was touched until an astronaut and a local clergyman personally arrived on the scene," Hull said. "The astronaut then escorted the remains to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana."
Priority number three was retrieving evidence, Rose said. This became the largest part of the recovery operation. One of the largest air search operations in U.S. history was conducted across a 20-mile corridor stretching from Ellis County to Toledo Bend reservoir. On the ground, a four-mile strip 200 miles across East Texas was searched foot-by-foot. Add to that two bodies of water -- Lake Nacogdoches and Toledo Bend reservoir.
Using Global Positioning System trackers, the latitude and longitude of each piece recovered was recorded. Recovered material was first taken to one of five different processing centers. From there, the material traveled to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, LA, for transport to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Items on the "hot list" considered particularly important to the investigation were taken first to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, then to Barksdale and Kennedy.
"Every once in a while we found what was considered a significant item, something they were really looking for" Rose said. "It might be a flight data recorder, a circuit board or even film."
NASA officially determined that a crack in the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing allowed superheated gas to penetrate and melt the wing's interior. Problems with the left wing were already apparent in April when Rose spoke at the Industrial Fire World conference in Houston.
"They've found a lot from the right side of the shuttle," Rose said. "I don't think they've found very much from the left side of the shuttle."
Conditions were often not favorable to the ground search. As much as eight inches of rain fell in parts of the search area during February. Worse, many of the searchers were not prepared for the Big Thicket assortment of briars and brambles. At least 2,000 pairs of chaps and all the water-proof boots we could get were needed for the searches, Rose said. These things were not available overnight.
"Volunteers spent most of their time trying to avoid getting stuck by thorns," Rose said. "When you're going through the woods and the first thorn nicks your ear, you lose all concentration on why you're there."
Two weeks into the search TFS' Stanford convinced NASA and FEMA to bring in wildland firefighting crews and command teams to replace the volunteers in handling the 2,300 square-mile grid searches. Some 25,000 individuals eventually participated in the recovery search.
"The national threat level was raised to orange," Stanford said. "Well, when that happened the DPS and the National Guard had to disengage from the search because they were required for homeland security. So the question was 'Who is going to conduct the search?'"
Brought in with the firefighters was a continuing rotation of the country's 50 interagency incident management teams made up of federal, state and local emergency responders, Stanford said. Eventually, 20 of the 50 teams would be rotated through Texas at two to three week intervals.
"These are the teams that manage the big wildfires you see on CNN during the summer," Stanford said. "They are organized with standing rosters so these are not something they throw together. They are so good at managing long duration incidents that they have been called in for Hurricane Andrew, the North Ridge earthquake in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center."
The National Association of State Foresters later awarded Stanford the Jim Roberts Partnership Award, recognizing his efforts to develop significant partnerships that integrate state forestry with other agencies.
Incident management teams were located in Nacogdoches, Hemphill, Palestine and Corsicana. Every day, the teams would produce an incident action plan detailing all operations in their areas.
"All the supervisors would have them," Rose said. "It listed who was working, where they were going, what their safety issues were, what their goals were, where they should go if there is a medical emergency and so on so that everybody knows what is going on."
On average, one person could cover one to 4? acres a day depending on terrain. With as many as 3,000 searchers on the ground at one time, an average of 9,800 acres were covered per day out of the 698,000 acres in the search area. NASA used computer modeling to determine areas of most interest where evidence of greatest importance might have fallen.
With as many as 700 searchers assigned to a single two mile by two mile grid section, the search pattern had to be carefully planned to avoid traffic jams on the small country roads, Stanford said. Searches were planned 48 hours in advance soeach grid could be checked on the ground beforehand.
Hull said TFS was careful to respect the rights of the property owners. Permission was obtained before entering any private land, he said.
"Most people, for the right cause, will get out there and help you themselves," Hull said.
Meanwhile, a fleet of 37 helicopters and six fixed wing aircraft were a constant sight above the 1.6 million acre search area.
"The air search can cover a much larger area much faster than people on foot can," Rose said. "But they can't get the small stuff. They were real good at helping us narrow down where we ought to be searching."
Unfortunately, fatalities related to the shuttle disaster did not end with the deaths of the seven astronauts. The Texas Forest Service suffered the loss of one of its own on March 27 when a Bell 407 helicopter experienced engine failure and crashed. TFS employee Charles Krenek of Lufkin and pilot Buzz Mier from Arizona were killed. Three others were injured.
Priority number four was to compensate local jurisdictions and individuals for any costs as soon as possible. This was in consideration for the enormous financial impact the search operation had on some communities.
"We doubled the size of Hemphill, TX, in a matter of days," Rose said. "One of the goals of FEMA and other agencies was to buy locally, which is a terrific idea. But this completely overwhelmed the local merchants. They needed to be paid as soon as possible or face going under. Payment was made within 24 hours in most cases."
In return, local residents took good care of the firefighters. In Hemphill, local resident Belinda Gay took it upon herself to organize a kitchen to keep the firefighters well fed. What began as a small operation soon involved nearly 300 people working 24 hours a day and cooking 2,500 meals daily.
"They were cooking homemade food like chicken and dumplings, pies, cakes and cookies," Hull said. "Usually, the way you feed a large group like this is through the Salvation Army or Red Cross. They were prepared to come to Hemphill and start doing what they were well equipped to do. The problem is the National Guard and some of my own employees said if we ran Belinda Gay off they were quitting."
Finally, on May 10, the recovery operation concluded after 100 days of continuous operation. Searchers recovered 82,500 pieces of material weighing a total of 84,700 pounds, equivalent to 38 percent of the shuttle's weight.
For Rose, the greatest opportunity the shuttle recovery operation presented was the chance to meet the astronauts themselves.
"You know you're doing something different when you're in a meeting and you hear guys talk about their space walks," Rose said.
Before the shuttle disaster, Hull said he could not have envisioned any situation that would have had NASA astronauts working side-by-side with TFS personnel. A press release issued by TFS quotes astronaut Dom Gorie with regard to the forest service's contribution to the recovery operation.
"Texas Forest Service has proven to be a perfect partner in this incident," Gorie said. "Not only do they have personnel who are familiar with the East Texas area, but even more importantly, they have provided structure for this effort through the incident command system."
Hull said he was equally impressed with the astronaut corp. They were on hand throughout the search to lend support and encouragement.
"They worked along side everybody else throughout the whole thing," Hull said. "They worked all day, then at noon and in the evenings they would fan out across East Texas, speaking to garden clubs, civic clubs, Boy's Scouts, churches, youth groups, anywhere they could make a presentation and thank the residents for their cooperation. And then they would put in another full day after that."
It meant a lot to hear NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe and other NASA officials say that the shuttle would fly again in the future because of the efforts of the Texas Forest Service, Hull said.
"It pains me to hear all the negative publicity that NASA is getting now that I know so many good people there are doing the best job they can," Hull said. "I hope they can get past this and get the program going again."
The TFS will present another program on their response to the shuttle disaster at the 19th annual Industrial Fire World Conference & Exposition, April 12-15, 2004, in Houston. TFS will also conduct a comprehensive unified incident command workshop.