‘Oldest Town in Texas’ quietly marks 5th anniversary of Columbia shuttle disaster

Published 9:03 pm Friday, February 1, 2008

The bronze medallion embedded in the pavement behind the Commercial Bank of Texas is easy to overlook. About the size of a DVD, it barely registers as a bump for the cars pulling into the drive-thru window.

It is there, engraved with the name of the space shuttle Columbia and the date five years ago Friday that the spacecraft exploded over the skies of eastern Texas.

The metal disc serves as a quiet tribute to the spot where a piece of the shuttle’s wing crashed to Earth in downtown Nacogdoches, and the day this tranquil town of about 30,000 was catapulted into national consciousness.

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It’s that way all over Nacogdoches, which proudly bills itself as “The Oldest Town in Texas” and where quaint brick streets mimic the red clay dirt found in this part of the state. Inside hotels, homes and offices — everywhere that pieces of the shuttle rained down from the heavens — reminders of that day remain. Some are tucked away meticulously in private memory, others displayed in public memorials.

Five years after Columbia disintegrated 39 miles over Texas as it returned from a 16-day mission, it’s clear the identity of this community will be forever twinned with the fate of the shuttle.

“It is something that is still a part of my life, and probably everybody else who had part in this particular mission. And I think it always be,” said Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss, who helped lead the recovery efforts after the disaster. “Regardless of how long I live, I will always have a keen awareness of what we had to go through, and the obstacles we overcame to accomplish some of what we did.”

It was this town, about 135 miles north of Houston, that lay directly under the shuttle’s flight path and directly under the path of the debris scattered across hundreds of miles when Columbia exploded just 16 minutes from landing, killing all seven astronauts on board.

And it was this town that became the epicenter of the search for whatever was left of the shuttle. More than 85,000 pieces that comprised only about 38 percent of the craft were eventually recovered.

In the first few hours after the explosion, no one knew what to expect. Townspeople stood on the street staring at the piece of wing that dropped and was quickly surrounded by National Guardsmen. More than 2,000 volunteers and searchers, including the Guard, U.S. Forest Service workers and NASA engineers, descended on Nacogdoches and its neighboring towns.

Today, Nacogdoches seems to cradle the events of Feb. 1, 2003, and the days that followed with a special reverence.

On a back wall inside the Commercial Bank, the disaster is memorialized in a collage of photographs, newspaper clippings and handwritten notes. “We rember you Columbia,” reads one note in a misspelled childish scrawl.

On the other side of the town square, inside a spacious but musty storefront, hundreds of people have visited the “Memories of Columbia” exhibit, which features NASA artifacts, front page reprints, topographic maps of the search grids and a small model of the shuttle carrying bouquets of dried flowers, stuffed teddy bears and notes bidding farewell to Columbia’s crew.

“Like any disaster, great things came out of it and then there are memories I don’t really want to go to,” said Dr. James C. Kroll, director of the Columbia Geospatial Service Center, which put on the exhibit.

At the Nacogdoches County Expo Center, a 45-acre complex that served as the staging area for the recovery efforts, wooden bleachers and dirt-floored barns normally used to stage rodeos and horse shows were transformed into waiting areas and tent housing for hundreds of searchers and volunteers.

Every day, hundreds of volunteers — undaunted by sleet and freezing temperatures — appeared at the gates and offered to assist in the search, recalled Bill Plunkett, a retired Houston police officer who manages the Expo Center.

“I’ll never forget about it, and the people who volunteered never will,” Plunkett said. “It was part of something you gave of yourself to help someone else you never knew.”