ON THE MORNING OF FEBRUARY 1, the sky rained down a scattering of debris on East Texas, heartbreaking remnants of the shuttle Columbia‘s doomed reentry. Then came waves of NASA officials and rescue crews, state troopers and local sheriffs, curious visitors and respectful mourners, followed by the real deluge—the media and their cameras, as they inundated the small-town East Texas lives of farmers and landowners whose property had become roped-off recovery grids.
When documentary photographer O. Rufus Lovett arrived on the scene, it wasn’t to simply catalogue charred bits of wreckage. Instead, he captured the disparate feelings of horror and pride on the faces of those who had a piece of Columbia in their backyards. Taking a step back from the general commotion, he also documented the media as they swarmed the makeshift memorial sites and camped out behind the bank—his “coverage of the coverage,” as he calls it.
Lovett, a Longview resident, has been able to share his images of the Columbia disaster, which appear in this month’s issue, with his photography students at Kilgore College. Now he shares with us what it was like to cover the cloudy aftermath of such a shocking disaster.
texasmonthly.com: How soon after the Columbia shuttle disaster did you go out to the region where the debris had landed?
O. Rufus Lovett: I was there the Saturday that it happened and the next day as well. I had left early that morning to photograph the interior of a house for another project I was working on when I got the call from [art director] Scott [Dadich] and had to turn around and go fetch all my equipment and head out to Nacogdoches. I also went back the following Saturday as well to get a sense of the recovery.
texasmonthly.com: What was the whole scene like?
ORL: All the major networks were there, and of course, quite a few photographers as well. A lot of folks started coming in from different towns, just to look and also to pray and leave flowers behind the Commercial Bank of Texas in downtown Nacogdoches where the media had camped.
The media were just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and then some people would come in [to the memorial site behind the bank]. They’d have small children with them, they’d place some flowers down, and then one reporter would ask, “Where are you from? What are you telling your children?” Then all of a sudden all of the reporters and cameras would swarm; everybody wanted a bite of that.
texasmonthly.com: What did you anticipate photographing?
ORL: I had no idea what was going on, and I really had no idea what to expect. I was just listening to the interviews on the radio on my way down to Nacogdoches and trying to conjure up how I might approach it. I thought the simplest and most obvious thing to do was to try to find some of those people who had debris in their backyards and make portraits of them with their debris. When I was listening to the interviews, as sad as the situation was, I couldn’t help but find something humorous in the dialect and the descriptions that were given by the common folk out there. There was one lady who kept going on and on about how the falling shuttle looked like a big sparkler, and she just kept going on and on, repeating that.
texasmonthly.com: With such a swell of photographers on the scene, did you find that everyone was trying to take pictures of the same things?
ORL: Perhaps not. I think most of the news photographers were just trying to find the debris itself and photograph it. I was more interested in the people and their debris and how the disaster was affecting the East Texas residents. The debris had just landed out in the farms and all the country folk were finding these pieces, so I thought that that would be the most interesting approach. I also photographed the media—coverage of the coverage—because it’s not often that Nacogdoches has something like that going on.
texasmonthly.com: Was there a particular ambience that you tried to capture?
ORL: There was a mix of emotions with the mourning that was taking place and, at the same time—I wouldn’t go so far as to say a circus-like atmosphere, but—a festive feeling, since the people were just amazed that not only had this happened, but also it had happened right there in their place. It was an ambiguous emotional response because there was all this media and attention, but at the same time it was because of a very horrible event.
To me, it was almost as if I was taking pictures of people and their new cars, or people and the deer that they had just slain. They’re just standing next to this odd piece of shuttle, and in the photographs it’s almost as if there’s a sense of it belonging to them.
texasmonthly.com: How did the people whose pictures you took feel about the debris on their property?
ORL: They were kind of excited about it and very anxious to show what they’d found. There was one guy who wasn’t so anxious because he was afraid that the authorities were going to come and rope off his property and he wouldn’t get to go down and show his buddies what he’d found. He was a little hesitant to phone in, but it was a huge, huge chunk that we were suspecting might have been a piece of the wing.
And some of those folks, I don’t know if they weren’t listening to the news or what, but they were walking around picking stuff up. One guy was holding some pieces and I said, “I don’t know if you should be touching that,” and he said, “I don’t think I can hurt it. I think it’s already broke.”
texasmonthly.com: What was the most haunting image you saw?
ORL: The most interesting thing that keeps coming back in my mind is a piece of debris that fell on some farmland. If you positioned yourself just right, at a certain point you could actually see the trajectory it took to earth because there was this big cedar tree, and in the side of it you could see this huge hole that had been taken out by the debris. You could see a little mark where the piece had fallen and bounced and then landed. It was interesting visually.
texasmonthly.com: You mentioned that you returned to Nacogdoches a week later to get a sense of the recovery. What was the scene like then?
ORL: Most of the pieces had already been taken away, and the FBI, the state troopers, and the sheriff’s department were all very careful because they were busy trying to do their jobs. I couldn’t actually get close to any of the pieces of debris at that point to take photographs.
I was hanging out at the place where the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] was set up to test the debris that was coming in from the recovery crews. I was just waiting for people to come in with debris to see if I could get a glimpse or a photograph. I photographed one state trooper carrying in a piece of debris in a baggie. It was difficult because the troopers wouldn’t stand and have their photographs taken or even stop at all. It was all business.
At the sheriff’s department just about everybody had gone, but there was one CNN crew still there and they had a little lamp set up. I stopped and saw this small roped-off space. There was a little recovery site right there and, I came to find out later, a piece of shuttle debris had landed right there on the sheriff’s property. It was humorous because they were using these global positioning systems to find the debris and some of it had fallen right near the sheriff’s department and nobody had noticed it for quite some time. People were just walking around it, stumbling over it probably.
So, they had taped it off and flagged it with four little flags around it. I asked a CNN guy if he could shine his spotlight in my direction when I was up on my ladder, and I photographed that small recovery spot that had nothing there anymore. To me that reflected the idea of recovery a week later.