How shuttle shards changed three Texas towns

Driving the county roads around this East Texas town, Douglas Hamilton points out where he saw the first piece of the Columbia shuttle after it fell to earth. It was at 8:05 on a Saturday morning, in a cow pasture about five miles west of Hemphill.

The forest-service worker nods as he passes the spot where an astronaut's torso was found three miles out of town. Over there was the nose cone. And here at the rodeo grounds, hundreds of people gathered each morning to search the dense East Texas forest for clues that might help NASA make sense of one of the worst disasters in the space program's history.

It's hard for many here to remember what things were like before Feb. 1, when shuttle shards rained down on their homes and pastures and lives. While they've returned to daily activities, many say they've been forever changed. "Most of us didn't even know the shuttle was in the air," says Mr. Hamilton, swinging his Ranger around and heading back to town. "We'll never be that ignorant again."

As the law-enforcement agencies, NASA officials, and news crews vanished, the residents of Texas's piney woods stayed here with their memories. As time has passed, their priority has become making sure others don't forget.

Now, up and down a 200-mile stretch scarred with the Columbia's remains, three counties have proposed major plans for memorials to the Columbia shuttle and its fallen crew.

• Angelina County is considering a regional memorial center in Angelina National Forest, as well as a commemorative marker in the county seat of Lufkin.

• Nacogdoches County is working on a space-technology center at Stephen F. Austin State University and a memorial park in downtown Nacogdoches.

• Sabine County has already begun fundraising for a sculpture, museum, and interpretive trail outside Hemphill, where the nose cone was found.

"These communities were profoundly affected by the events that have take place since Feb. 1, and we believe they should honor the crew and their own communities in whatever way is most meaningful to them," says Peggy Wooten, NASA's community liaison. "It's important for them to grieve and heal, and that's what these memorials are all about."

Indeed, in some ways, these rural communities were more intimately involved in the shuttle disaster than, say, NASA officials or the thousands who flew in from around the country to comb the woods for three months.

Stories of the outpouring of support from residents are everywhere, and it's hard to find anyone who didn't contribute. That's why the idea of a memorial is so important to Sabine County residents. "We believe this is where the flight ended. This is where the nose cone and all seven of the bodies were found," says Sabine County Judge Jack Leath, chairman of the memorial committee. "It brought us together in such a way that I think it will have a lasting effect."

For the first few weeks, for instance, this tiny town of 1,000 provided 3,000 meals a day to searchers at the local VFW hall. One older gentleman killed his only chicken, cooked it, and brought it there because that was the one thing he had to offer. Residents here opened their homes to those who needed a bed, provided transportation to search sights, and handed out T-shirts that read: "Your mission has become our mission."

And in all of this, they refused reimbursement.

In rush to help, a new perspective

Hemphill High School sophomore Jodi Deason spent every afternoon cooking. In three weeks, she missed one day - to study for her Spanish exam. "I've never made so much potato salad in my life," she says from behind the counter at Fat Fred's, a local hamburger joint.

Before the accident, says Jodi, she wasn't keen on her hometown, convinced it was boring and small. But the shuttle disaster changed her mind. "It was weird," she says. "It was like everybody got so involved and put aside their differences and joined together to help. It made me feel proud to be from here."

The county has only 10,000 residents. Most work in the logging industry, and about half are retirees. Sabine County boasts the two largest man-made lakes in Texas, with some of the best bass fishing around. But prior to the shuttle disaster, there were strong divisions, says Hemphill funeral director Byron Starr, who's working on a book about residents' response. "You had the lake people and locals. You had the two towns, Hemphill and Pineland, who competed in everything, including football. But the community kind of changed after Columbia. Those divisions went down and kind of stayed down."

'We want the official memorial'

If there is any rivalry, it's between Hemphill and Nacogdoches, says Mr. Starr, who hiked to every sight where the astronauts' remains were found. "We want the official memorial. But they have more voters and more money so they'll probably get it." In fact, NASA says it will not sponsor an official memorial. Rather, each community is free to do what it wants. The space agency will, however, provide assistance and is encouraging the counties to work together.

In Sabine County, officials are hoping to raise $4 million - no small sum for a humble, rural county. Their plans include a museum, which would tell the story of Columbia and the search efforts, and an interpretive trail on 10 acres where the nose cone was found. It would begin with a bronze sculpture of the astronauts and then lead visitors through the thick forest and over ravines to a replica of the nose cone with biographical markers of each astronaut along the way. Officials are hoping the interpretive trail will be open by next summer.

The communities are on their own in raising money for the memorials; NASA will not contribute financially. But that has not deterred the spirit. Residents here have already given more than they thought possible.

"I've been on this earth a little while, and this was the most altruistic thing I've ever seen," says Hemphill School Superintendent Mike Terry, who's heading the memorial-fundraising effort. "Nobody was expecting anything in return. They were just helping out because it was the right thing to do."

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