Lost and Found

After the space shuttle Columbia exploded, thousands of pieces rained down on me and my neighbors. Our corner of East Texas will never be the same again.

April 2003By Comments

IT PROMISED TO BE A beautiful Saturday, this first day of February, with a cloudless sky and a predicted high of 70 degrees. Already the sun was easing the chill of early morning. I let the cat out the back door and took one last look at the newspaper. It was just before eight o’clock.

That’s when the boom hit, followed by a series of rumbles. It rattled the windows and caused the wooden blinds to sway against the French doors.

At first I thought a tanker had overturned and exploded. I live south of Nacogdoches, about one hundred yards off U.S. 59, a busy north-south route through East Texas’ Pine Curtain. Truck explosions have occurred a number of times in the nearly thirteen years I’ve lived here. But when I stepped outside, I didn’t hear any sirens, just the familiar dull roar of traffic on the highway. I looked up and saw a ragged contrail bisecting the sky and quickly breaking apart. I remembered hearing a few minutes earlier on NPR that the space shuttle Columbia was about to land in Florida. I’ve seen a shuttle coming across East Texas twice before. Once it was nearly dusk, and the shuttle was a brilliant orange streak flashing across the sky in seconds—a beautiful sight.

I shrugged, figuring that I had just missed seeing the shuttle again. A few minutes later, when I arrived in town to meet some friends at Schlotzsky’s Deli, I watched the restaurant’s owner, a friend of mine, hang up the phone and repeatedly run his fingers through his gray hair. His face was white and his eyes wide.”

They say they’re finding pieces of the shuttle in Nacogdoches,” he said.

I’M THE EDITOR AND PUBLISHER of the Daily Sentinel in Nacogdoches. It’s basically my dream job. Back when I was a student here at Stephen F. Austin University, in the seventies, I used to tell my college buddies over buckets of cheap beer that this was my career ambition. Most of the other students saw Nacogdoches, an agricultural town of 30,000—invariably referred to as “Nac-a-nowhere”—as a place to get an education and get out. But I’d fallen in love with the community the moment I’d first seen it, and there hasn’t really been a day since that I haven’t been excited to go to work. Then again, when the space shuttle blows up in the sky above your little town, suddenly, at least for a time, the entire world seems to be hanging on every story you produce, every photo that is transmitted. The stakes of small-town journalism change in a hurry. Less than a minute after my friend’s somber announcement, I was in my Jeep, headed to the office about two miles away.

When I got to the newsroom, the police scanner crackled nonstop. I heard dispatchers sending officers all over the city and out into the county as people began calling 911 to report debris falling out of the sky. “The space shuttle has just come over,” said one caller, “and I have a piece of it. We are on South Street, and I have a piece of it in my truck.” On and on the calls came in to the dispatchers—the 200 block of Seale Street, the 1000 block of Virginia Avenue, Pearl Street near Main Street, County Road 843, Lake Nacogdoches, Littles Chapel Road, Douglass, near the Second Baptist Church, Farm-to-Market Road 2259, near Pinkston’s garage—all places I recognized instantly.

Groggy-eyed reporters and layout people began wandering in to work. Most arrived before I could get ahold of them; they simply knew to come to the office. But my managing editor, Robbie Goodrich, usually my right arm, was in Dallas that day for her father-in-law’s birthday party. I left a ridiculous-sounding voice mail on her cell phone: “Robbie, the shuttle has crashed in Nacogdoches. Call when you get this message.”

The scene in the newsroom quickly became chaotic. Within the first few hours, we were invaded by out-of-town photographers and reporters borrowing desk space and phone lines to send out reports. And our own phones didn’t stop ringing. Local citizens and news outlets from across the country called wanting information and phone numbers. Photo syndicates were bidding to buy exclusive rights; television networks wanted interviews. The district attorney called to say that the roof of his mother’s house had been pierced with debris and that he could see blue sky from inside the attic. CNN called to ask for a digital image of our first front page to show on Aaron Brown’s nightly show. The Associated Press bureau in Dallas called several times wanting to know where my story was. At one point, I had a cell phone to one ear and a landline phone to the other, all the while talking to someone in the newsroom.

We posted our first account and photos to the newspaper’s Web site and AP by ten o’clock. I wrote a quick-and-dirty, bare-bones account of what we knew, based on what our handful of people in the field had reported, along with what I had gathered from the scanner and phone calls. Our one staff photographer, Andy Brosig, transmitted a shot of two National Guardsmen standing watch over a piece of the shuttle in a bank parking lot. That photo ended up on the front page of the Miami Herald‘s extra edition and in the extras produced in Atlanta and Austin. I found out later that our Web site’s number of daily page views jumped from 10,000 on Friday to 269,000 on Saturday.

With our first story filed, I decided to see for myself what was happening. I got back in my Jeep, and when I rounded the corner near our office, I saw Regions Bank president Ron Collins lowering the flags in front of his building to half-staff. He was intent on his task and never saw me.

NACOGDOCHES, WITH ITS RED-DIRT ROADS, stately homes, and gently rolling terrain, is a Southern town that would not be out of place in Georgia. It has been settled continuously since 1716, and whatever fortunes were lost after the Civil War, when other towns gained railroad lines while Nacogdoches was left stranded, quite literally, in the middle of the woods, were regained when Stephen F. Austin University was founded here, in 1923, bringing new economic, cultural, and intellectual life. And in these days of malls and big-box retailers, the downtown area remains more alive than most. Brick streets, fake antique streetlights, original storefronts and facades, and an old post office turned into an attractive Historic Town Center give the place a unique identity. On most Saturdays, a steady stream of local folks head to the one-hundred-year-old Cason-Monk Hardware store to pick up supplies for what we call “honey-do projects,” but nothing like the hordes that arrived nearby on the first day of February 2003.

Four hours after the Columbia exploded, several hundred people were downtown in the parking lot behind Cason-Monk, pushing against the yellow tape, staring quietly at a chunk of metal that resembled a piece of tin roof blown off an old chicken house in a thunderstorm. Two National Guardsmen stood sentry over that single piece of shuttle, no bigger than a car door. Video crews and reporters milled about conducting interviews and looking for soundbites to fill up the nonstop television coverage being given to the tragedy. Locals, everyone from bank tellers to school administrators, were providing spontaneous words of grief that were beamed up to satellites and broadcast all over the world. Later, as I visited with people I regularly encounter, I couldn’t find anyone who hadn’t been interviewed by at least one media outlet.

Earlier in the day, my wife, Stacy, had come downtown after the crowd had gathered. She had bought a cross made of flowers and placed it on the sidewalk beneath the yellow tape, as close to that piece of Columbia as was allowed, where a few folks had already laid flowers. The site became an impromptu shrine. Dozens of people brought more flowers and candles or left notes of condolence for the Columbia crew and their families. Some offered silent prayers. Others just stared in shock.

What struck me, now that I had escaped the bedlam of the newsroom, was the difference between the excitement we felt there and the ineffable sadness of the people gathered downtown. I didn’t take any joy in this horrible event. Still, my job is to cover the news, and having such a huge story land in your lap is, well, exhilarating. When your mind is so focused on getting the story, you put aside emotion. I imagine it isn’t much different from how rescue workers feel when rehashing their work after a high-adrenaline disaster.

But among the mourners, I had my first chance to reflect on the tragedy. Like everyone else, I thought of the shuttle crew’s families, how they had been eagerly awaiting a spouse’s or mother’s or father’s return to earth, only to learn in horror that Columbia had broken apart. I thought about NASA and the manned-space program and wondered if the two would survive another catastrophe. And I thought about my town. It had been only a few hours, but the place seemed somehow irreversibly changed.

Maybe organizing after a disaster is encoded in human DNA, because people seem to react instinctually to catastrophe in the same way all over the world. Already, throughout our town, everyday citizens were pitching in to help. Restaurant owners donated food to the Law Enforcement Center, which had quickly converted itself into a headquarters for the recovery effort. Merchants and individuals offered up gloves, tarps, four-wheelers—whatever was needed. Volunteers came forward by the score.

Back in the office, as I looked up from editing stories, I saw Sue Kennedy being interviewed on CNN. Kennedy, our first female county judge, had just begun her second term. I’ve known her for many years. She thinks things through before she speaks, has unassailable integrity, and is not easily flustered. Still, nothing can prepare you for briefing the media on worldwide television. But there she was, along with Sheriff Thomas Kerss, holding televised press conferences every two hours throughout the day. Their openness and dignity were widely praised by the out-of-towners with whom I talked and by viewers around the country, who sent dozens of e-mails to our Web site complimenting them.

For the most part, the out-of-town media were polite but a bit nonplussed by our Southern hospitality. My entertainment writer recounted overhearing a reporter utter a barnyard epithet in a downtown hotel lobby.

She turned to him and asked, “Do you have a problem?”

The media guy snapped back, “No, do you?”

She stepped closer and fixed her gaze on him. “I’m Judy Morgan, with the Daily Sentinel. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

The man confessed that he was lost out here and needed help figuring out how to get to Houston to catch a flight to Memphis. Judy gave him explicit directions, and they parted amicably.

For me, the rest of Saturday was a blur of editing stories, rewriting the Sunday editorial to opine on how this tragedy would affect our community, and constantly talking on the phone. But I do recall turning to someone that day and saying, “I wish this had never happened. But remember that we will never cover a story like this again.”

THERE WERE AN ESTIMATED THREE hundred media personnel on hand here the weekend of the tragedy, but ten days after the Columbia explosion, nearly all of them had disappeared. Most newspapers and television stations simply parachuted in crews for a quick story and then left, turning their attention to the possibility of war or focusing on the cause of the disaster. But for our newspaper, and our town, the story continues to be all-consuming. We’ve settled into a routine. The recovery effort has become a beat, just as covering the city commission or picking up the police report is. In many ways, it’s as if the normal day-to-day news we cover has simply stopped.

By the end of the first weekend, more than 800 recovery workers were scouring Nacogdoches County, many of them gathering each morning at the Exposition Center, while more than 1,000 were doing the same in Sabine and San Augustine counties. By midweek, 350 Department of Public Safety troopers had also arrived, serving as custodians for the evidence collected by the recovery crews. You might have thought we’d become a police state. One trooper, when asked how the DPS was enforcing traffic laws everywhere else when so many troopers were in deep East Texas, just shrugged and said, “I guess it’s a free-for-all.”

Unfortunately, a few people around town viewed the recovery of shuttle pieces the same way. Despite local radio and TV stations’ playing taped messages warning residents not to touch any debris because it might be toxic, looting began almost immediately. On the morning of the crash, Jamie Maldonado, our page designer, showed me an eBay Web page where someone was trying to sell a piece of the shuttle. We watched the bidding rise to $31,100 before the online auction pulled it. By February 10, three people, including a constable from Harrison County, had been arrested for hiding debris. Rumors started to circulate. At one point we checked into a story that the sheriff had taken a goat into custody, suspecting that its owner had fed it shuttle parts to keep them hidden. I’m happy to report that at least that was untrue.

On the other side of the equation, the National Guard, which had taken on the daunting task of trying to protect the hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris scattered over 2 states and 38 counties while NASA officials tried to decide what to do with them, produced some surreal moments of its own. I drove to work early Sunday morning, the day after the crash, and saw three National Guardsmen huddled around a pile of debris about the size of a car battery. This scene was mirrored all over town. Guards stood watch in shifts as long as 72 hours before recovery teams finally arrived on Tuesday or they were relieved by DPS troopers.

As you might expect, the local economy, which had been feeling the effects of the national recession, is booming with the influx of hundreds of outsiders. For the first time in months, nearly all the hotels are packed, and locals are wrestling with long lines at restaurants. Nobody is gloating. We aren’t the kind of people to take joy in making money off tragedy. But you can’t help but notice that there is an energy in town that wasn’t here before, and I wonder if some of us won’t feel something akin to melancholy when all the recovery people are gone.

Our lives are beginning to return to normal: taking kids to school, going to Rotary Club or PTA meetings, trying to make a living. But the shuttle is still the topic of conversation wherever you go. Everybody has a story to tell, and whether it’s me recalling how the Sunday morning after the crash was spent with a crew from the German television network Spiegel videotaping me performing mundane tasks such as typing on a computer, or someone else relating a strange encounter with a foreigner, these stories are starting to weave their way into the history of the town. There are thousands of them, probably one for every piece of debris that has fallen here.

I don’t think this story will ever fade away. The destruction of Columbia is something my paper will likely cover until I retire. People will continue to find debris in the woods, on the side of the road, and in cow pastures. As one friend put it, “My unborn grandkids will be finding pieces of the shuttle.” And when they do, we’ll write a story. That’s what we do in a small town.

Related Content