Recovery work continues in Louisiana and Texas, where debris was scattered over hundreds of kilometers, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart Saturday. All seven crew members were killed, and officials say some of their remains have been found.
Local officials have confirmed more than 1,200 debris sites in Nacogdoches County, says Sheriff Thomas Kerss, whose officers are helping federal officials with the recovery work. He said fewer than six of the sites have human remains. Other human remains have been found in other parts of eastern Texas.
Police and reserve soldiers are guarding the most important sites. But because of limited manpower, they will leave some sites unguarded, as they move to new locations. Later, said Sheriff Kerss, federal investigators will retrieve the debris for analysis at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. "We continue to monitor any site that has a report of any human remains; any site that has instrumentation data or possible computer data that we can retrieve information from, anything that looks like it may be volatile in nature, fuel cells," he said.
Ray Maxie belongs to the national guard, and had already been called to active duty. When the shuttle disaster occurred, he was sent home to Nacogdoches to stand guard over a shuttle fragment, a 30-centimeter bracket with two moveable joints. It was beside a highway leading into town, where he was told to watch over it, until federal investigators arrive. "That nothing happens to it, just keep it in place, until NASA comes and collects it all together," he said.
Nacogdoches residents are slowly coming to grips with the events that overtook their community Saturday morning, as the shuttle disintegrated in the skies above them.
Many mistook the early morning sound that rattled doors and windows for a sonic boom, the kind that air force jets make when they break the sound barrier. Others mistook the sound for a sudden storm.
That was the case with high school student Emily Morris, who lives on a farm near the town of 30,000. "I thought it was a tornado, or thunder. I didn't know what it was," he said. "And all my cows started mooing, so I figured it was a tornado."
Sunday, the teenager was greeting visitors who had come to pay condolences to the seven astronauts at a makeshift shrine. Flowers were placed in front of the fenced-off section of a bank parking lot, where a one-meter long sheet of debris from Columbia had landed. It was still in the parking lot Sunday.
By the side of the highway, Donna Grimes stopped to see a small piece of the shuttle where it lay on the roadside. Her thoughts turned to the crew members. "You can only hope that the people that died on board the craft, maybe it would have been very quick and they didn't know. That's what we have to pray for," she said.
Robert Garcia of nearby Center, Texas, finds consolation in the thought that the astronauts died doing something they loved. "By them fulfilling their dreams, it's something that they wanted to do. They fulfilled it. It's just sad that they weren't able to come back. But we will never forget them," he said. "Our prayers are with them in church, [with] them and all their relatives."
Residents are helping with the recovery work. Police say most are obeying requests to report any debris to authorities, instead of collecting it and turning it over themselves. Short-staffed police are relying on tips from the public to help locate the wreckage. Investigators armed with global positioning systems are mapping the debris to get a better picture of how the shuttle breakup happened.
Meanwhile, local authorities are giving high priority to a thorough check of school grounds, which could contain debris that is contaminated with toxic material.