The Day Columbia Fell

by Chris Bergin

While those listening in on the problems that started to be communicated on the Flight Loop at Mission Control, Johnson Space Center (JSC), were left with a sense of disbelief at the unfolding loss of NASA’s flagship – those on the ground in East Texas would prove to be the first to find out. In remembrance of Columbia and her crew, lost four years ago, we recall the eye witness events of those involved in helping return the crew and the orbiter back home. A special video has also been produced for download.

 Witnesses recall hearing a harrowing rumble high in the sky – as Columbia’s re-entry started to be dragged off course by the entry of super-hot gasses through a breach, caused by a piece of foam insulation striking the leading edge of her left wing on launch, burning into the cavity and tearing her apart without mercy.

‘What in the hell was that?’ – Jeff Millslagle, an FBI agent in East Texas, recalled saying via a phone call to his supervisor, after hearing the deep rumble high above him.
Quickly realizing – via live TV pictures of Columbia’s break-up – that a 230,000 pound spacecraft was reigning down on the State at 12,000 mph – Millslagle urgently phoned Washington, DC.

‘Listen, we’ve got an incident on our hands,’ he said. ‘We don’t know the magnitude. We don’t know injuries on the ground.” You’ve got what? Explain this to me slowly,’ the Washington agent asked. ‘What does this have to do with us?’

Agent Millslagle started phoning around his fellow agents, with four based in Lufkin heading to Nacogdoches, where people reporting debris were overloading the 911 system. Soon he was to come across a large crater.

‘If this little piece did that much damage,’ the agent recalled, ‘what am I going to see on the ground? The buildings? The people? If that’s just one little piece – I’ve seen the shuttle take off. I know how big it is.’

It would later be revealed that had the main break up had started just one minute earlier, Columbia would have showered a suburban area of Dallas – with untold tragic circumstances for those on the ground. Amazingly, only an Eagle at Lake Nacogdoches was to be killed on the ground from the falling debris.

‘Columbia’s lasting memorial in my eyes was her bravery that often gets over-looked,’ said a United Space Alliance worker who asked not to be named in this article. ‘It was like she knew. I know that may sound strange – given she’s a machine, but I can’t – no matter how many times I look at the data – work out how she stayed mainly in one piece for so long, with her left wing terribly misshaped.

‘Even with what we believe was – and I pray – an unconscious crew, and with her structure collapsing all around her, she still made multiple RCS (Reaction Control System) firings and rudder movements, fighting all the way to try and correct the drag. She should have been pulled over before she finally broke up, but she fought back, again and again.

‘When I first got to see the data, I cried my eyes out. She was so brave to the end – I’m so proud of her and I’ll never forget her.’

The tragic human loss would soon be all too apparent, with the ultimate priority of finding and recovering the seven astronauts that perished.

Special Agent Terry Lane received a call that a torso had been found by a State Trooper on a road outside Hemphill and had been covered with a raincoat. Lane was asked to help given his experience from being part of the FBI Evidence Team at Ground Zero after September 11.

Lane heard an astronaut had driven up from Houston and insisted to go to the site of his fallen colleague. ‘We don’t want them going anywhere without us,’ Lane recalled the un-named astronaut saying.

As they waited silently for a Chaplin to arrive to say a prayer over the remains, word had gotten out to a News Helicopter of the find. Hovering just above the treetops for a closer shot, Lane and the Trooper swore furiously at the Media crew as they desperately held down the raincoat over the body.

A call to the Federal Aviation Administration soon closed the region’s airspace below 3,000 feet. Locals were also noted to be verbally attacking news crews that tried to overstep the mark.

Lane recalled that this would prove to be just one of the examples of how the local communities around the debris path that would – without being asked – help bring Columbia and her crew back home to rest. Thousands of residents were volunteering to comb the field and woods, some taking sheets and blankets off their own beds to cover any human remains found, standing vigil over them for hours until the authorities arrived.

The start of the organized search began the day after the loss of Columbia – and for the coming week’s soldiers, police, foresters, volunteers, even NASA officials moved in arms-length lines. They crossed barbed-wire fences and overgrown fields – often waist-deep in mud, through deep forestry and over dangerous streams, sometimes in the rain, sleet and snow.

Many people got ill during the search, passing out with dehydration, some losing vast amounts of weight and one National Guardsman collapsed from exhaustion and then begged, trembling, not to be sent home. ‘We have to take her (Columbia) home, I can’t leave her here,’ said one NASA official at the time, after the crew had all been found.

Individual stories of how people pulled together – ranged from one lady who decided that 200 searchers from the National Guard who slept in a Hemphill school gym needed fresh towels every day, so she did laundry. Schoolchildren made sandwiches, people cooked at all hours, even a poverty-struck old man brought in a pan of fried chicken – which was from his only hen.

Another touching story was an old lady who baked a cake for the rescuers at Hemphill command post – hand decorated with an American flag and the names of the seven STS-107 astronauts. It was carefully sliced into 75 pieces by the lady – and was thanked by all in attendance, but no one touched it.

Agent Millslagle explained: ‘After about an hour, someone went up and covered it in cellophane. It sat there for days – out of respect for the astronauts.’This is the right-stuff people, our best. These are ordinary folks who do extraordinary things.’

Elements first published in 2005 on this site.

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