Truckloads of debris from the space shuttle Columbia have begun arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Each piece of the orbiter will be put in its proper place over a grid marked in yellow and blue tape on the floor of a huge hangar, which also houses the offices of the panel investigating the February 1 disaster. Much of the shuttle broke up over eastern Texas, where the search for more debris is expected to continue for several weeks.
Federal authorities have begun taking over the day-to-day management of the collection effort, setting up an operations center in the city of Nacogdoches and a tent city for search crews on the outskirts of town in Nacogdoches County. The move comes as a relief for local officials, who have done much of the work locating, guarding and retrieving shuttle debris.
When pieces of the space shuttle began falling from the sky on the morning of February 1, Rusty Sanders jumped into action. First, the city's fire chief needed to inspect a charred circuit board that lay on his roof. "And I came immediately back downtown and we were getting reports about debris that was falling. None of it was catching fire or anything like that I notified our city manager and immediately started calling people in," he said.
Chief Sanders is also the Emergency Management Coordinator for Nacogdoches, and he dispatched about a third of the city's 100 police officers and fire fighters into neighborhoods to note where debris had fallen and warn residents not to touch it. "Everybody's sort of been sort of keyed up and geared up and ready to go we've canceled vacations for right now we have a lot of people working," he said.
"City staff has been tapped in a multitude of ways to respond to just all sorts of things," said Nacogdoches City Manager Virginia LaFollett. She says everyone got involved in the effort. "You may have meter readers driving the trucks, we've got police officers, you've got fire, public works people. We had people in our public works department that were pulled off to go with the EPA people to help them get to locations because we know where things can be found," she said.
Ms. LaFollett says the first two days were the most hectic as city administrators and emergency personnel worked around the clock. During that first weekend, city workers racked up $34,000 in overtime. Not surprisingly, some regular city business came to a halt. "Everything that was on your calendar to do is gone, you know, everything was canceled, meetings were stopped. We're trying to build a new police station we're trying to get a new animal shelter. These things move to the back burner," she said.
City employees, like Court Clerk Leann Gerner, found their jobs transformed. As reporters converged on the small town, Ms. Gerner's office became the Media Relations Center. For the past two weeks, she's been helping reporters find their way to press conferences instead of processing paperwork for jail inmates or people filing lawsuits. "The things that we need to get out immediately, we are getting out immediately, but things that can wait, we've just started a box and we're just gonna put it in a box until everything goes back to normal and then we will begin catching up on the work that's backlogged," she said.
But city and county officials say, even though looking for shuttle debris has been taxing, public servants are not neglecting important duties. For example, Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss says his staff still responds to crime reports and other emergencies. "Even though we do have the space shuttle literally laying all over Nacogdoches County first and foremost we have a priority to the citizens of this county to meet their law enforcement needs and I have not forgotten that task as well," he said.
Nacogdoches officials say they'll continue to assist in the recovery effort for as long as NASA needs them to. Some say they're short on sleep but add that the long days are worth it if it means helping to discover what led to the shuttle's break-up.