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Search for <i>Columbia</i> Debris Continues as Public Help is Enlisted - 2003-02-03

In Louisiana and Texas, recovery crews continue to gather debris from the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart Saturday, killing all seven crew members. Shorthanded authorities in Nacogdoches, Texas, are asking for help from the public to locate the wreckage.

Technicians with global positioning systems are mapping the debris, as local authorities guard important sites, including those with human remains, data devices or anything that could be toxic or explosive.

Authorities are relying on tips from the public to locate the wreckage in the towns and forests of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

Nacogdoches resident Ross Lafour says many people are helping. "Everybody has become an amateur debris hunter now. Everyone is excited and sad, emotional at the same time. It is just unbelievable. We are just trying to help out," he said.

NASA crews began picking up debris Sunday in Nacogdoches, including a piece of wreckage one meter long that had landed in the parking lot of a downtown bank building.

Sheriff Thomas Kerss said his police force is stretched thin, and is leaving some sites unguarded to check newly reported locations. He made an appeal through the news media, asking local residents not to touch the wreckage.

"We would hope that through all of your contact with your citizens and our pleading to them to please avoid space shuttle debris and please do not pick that up or move it in any way, that everyone will comply with our request and that that location will remain intact," he said.

The debris is spread over hundreds of kilometers, and investigators hope the mapping operation will offer clues about what caused the shuttle's breakup. Debris is being sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for analysis.

Some schools in the area are expected to stay closed until their grounds are checked for wreckage, some of which could be toxic.