One month ago was the 20th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster – an event many of us will never forget. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on Feb. 1, 2003 as it reentered the atmosphere over Texas and Louisiana, killing all seven astronauts on board.
It was a Saturday morning and I was in the Enterprise office finishing up some work before we went to press with the Sunday paper. I was a little on edge. “The Battle for Long King Creek,” a Civil War reenactment in which approximately 400 reenactors from across the nation would be participating, was slated for that afternoon at Pedigo Park. I’d never seen a Civil War reenactment before, much less covered one for the newspaper, so I felt a little nervous and unsure of myself, not knowing what to expect.
Then the phones started ringing. People from various areas of the county reported hearing explosions. Someone suggested it may have been a sonic boom created when the Space Shuttle Columbia reentered the atmosphere for its planned landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Minutes later, we received word that the shuttle was overdue.
A coworker in the composition department received a call from her husband who was fishing with friends on Lake Nacogdoches. He told her they saw a big ball of fire and watched what they first thought was a meteor start breaking up. He told her there had been a sound like thunder that lasted for several minutes after the light was gone and that debris had fallen in the water within about five feet from his boat.
A man watching television from his room in the local hospital heard a newscaster say the shuttle would be flying over the area on its way to Florida. Wanting to see it, he walked to his window where he saw a bright light, at first thinking it was a jet. He then noticed the craft was separating with pieces flying off. He said he could tell something was not right.
NASA declared a state of emergency and issued warnings that any debris found by citizens should not be touched and should be reported to local law enforcement immediately. Reports of found debris were coming in from Dallas to Beaumont, including some from Polk County.
This was horrifying, completely unimaginable. Or was it? Columbia was the second space shuttle mission to end in disaster, after the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and crew in 1986. My mind drifted back to that January day. A college student at the time, I had skipped my PE class that morning and was hanging out in the Bill Daniel Student Center watching TV with some other students. Newscasters interrupted The Price is Right to show the Challenger liftoff and then we all watched in real time as the craft exploded right before our eyes. We were stunned and speechless.
In the days that followed the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, dozens of people from Polk County – law enforcement officers, firefighters, first responders, emergency management officials – participated in the search and recovery efforts. Divided into teams, they worked 12-14-hour days, utilizing horses and multiple types of all-terrain vehicles to search the forests of East Texas for pieces of the exploded craft and, more importantly, remains of the seven crew members.
I can distinctly remember conversations with Livingston Fire Chief Corky Cochran, then-Livingston Police Chief Dennis Clifton, then-Chief Deputy Mike Nettles and then-Precinct 2 Commissioner and Onalaska Fire Chief Bobby Smith. They all commented on the reverence of the search efforts and the overall mood of respect. “Those people are a huge representative part of America and they fell right here in East Texas. If there is anything we could say to their families it would be that rest assured this search is being handled with professionalism and dignity,” Cochran said.
Days turned into weeks as many of our local citizens continued assisting with search and recovery efforts. When they would find something, they would log it, photograph it, determine the GPS coordinates and flag it. Over time, they found a four-by-four front side window that was still intact. They found a helmet, something that may have been the sole of a boot, part of an instrument board, a door from the shuttle and an oxygen sensor. Several of them commented on the emotional and mental toll of the project and the knowledge that they were a part of something that would be in future history books.
I made it through “The Battle for Long King Creek” that Saturday. The Civil War reenactment was well attended. Best estimates from those who planned it indicated that roughly 7,000 people attended the two-day event.
Approximately 2,000 school students from over eight school districts were there, viewing the many exhibits and demonstrations. Touring the general campsite, they saw a Gatling gun, a black powder rifle and cannons. They visited with a man running a sewing machine who discussed clothing of the time period and the different types of fabrics. They visited with a soapmaker. They visited with an infantry man who discussed the costliness of the Civil War in terms of lives lost.
There were medical demonstrations where doctors talked about infection and disease and why there were so many amputees during the war. There were authentic medical tools from the time period. They explained that “gut wounds and head wounds” were left on the battlefield because there was nothing doctors could do for them and that amputation of major wounds was a matter of the doctor’s choice. They said if a patient was seen within the first 24 hours, the chances of survival were better, reminding everyone that there were no antibiotics back then.
We have learned a lot and come a long way since these tragic events, but the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and the Civil War were all steep prices to pay in the name of progress.