Lufkin, TX -- On Feb. 1, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart and fell across East Texas and western Louisiana, no one could envision the magnitude of the event and the tremendous number of people and agencies that would eventually become a part the recovery effort. This is a look at the three-month operation to help get the NASA shuttle flying again.
Shortly after the tragedy, President Bush issued emergency declarations for Texas and Louisiana and within hours, federal and state agencies deployed teams to the disaster area to assist local fire, law enforcement and emergency management authorities. Initially, more than 60 agencies-including volunteer and private groups, responded with personnel, supplies and equipment. Disaster Field Offices (DFO) opened at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and in Lufkin, Texas, and a satellite DFO was established in Fort Worth. The Lufkin DFO was the regional center of all search-related operations.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinated the response and recovery operations. NASA, with the assistance of the Texas Forest Service (TFS), the U. S. Forest Service (USFS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many others, supervised the search for shuttle material.
From the beginning, the priorities for the agencies were three-fold: ensure public safety, retrieve evidence-pieces of the shuttle that could ultimately determine the cause of the tragedy, and reimburse expenses of state and local governments and private citizens who may have sustained property damage as a result of the accident and search.
NASA quickly identified potential hazardous materials, such as tanks containing toxic substances or unexploded pyrotechnic devices, and once found, the EPA secured and removed hazardous material immediately. The EPA also worked with state and local authorities to quickly clear school campuses and public access areas, and tested air and water samples taken along the flight path for shuttle contaminates. Using the resources of the Emergency Response and Removal Service (ERRS) contractors and the U. S. Coast Guard, Gulf Strike Team, EPA found no evidence of hazardous material in the atmosphere or drinking water supplies.
Early in the recovery effort, teams from NASA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Guard, Urban Search and Rescue organizations, the Department of Public Safety and others, conducted a successful search in East Texas to recover and bring home Columbia's crew.
Three days after the accident, local fire, police, volunteers, Texas Department of Public Safety officers (DPS), Louisiana State Police, and EPA, USFS, TFS and National Guard units from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico began clearing shuttle debris in high-traffic areas. A one-page set of guidelines prepared by the State of Texas, NASA and EPA enabled the teams to collect, document, tag and transport non-hazardous debris without prior EPA or NASA clearance. These initial teams ended their search operations Feb. 17.
The TFS, under the direction of NASA, now assumed responsibility for search activities in the field, which involved extensive air and ground searches in a 10-mile by 240-mile corridor along the projected shuttle flight path. The TFS-through the Texas Interagency Coordination Center-called upon experienced management and firefighting crews from across the nation and Puerto Rico. The air operations, managed by TFS, included up to 36 helicopters and 10 fixed wing aircraft.
Also involved in the air search, but not managed by TFS, were motorized Para gliders, an ER-2 (similar to the U-2), a specially equipped DC-3, and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), among others. CAP volunteers put in more than 800 search-days of flying in the weeks just after the accident and covered the flight corri...