A National Guardsman stands near debris believed to be from the shuttle along a highway in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Debris brings out curiosity, grief
NACOGDOCHES, Texas A small, curved sheet of metal transformed a downtown parking lot into an instant memorial to the seven astronauts who perished Saturday.
Hundreds of people showed up to look at the 3-by-3-foot piece of debris from space shuttle Columbia. It was one of hundreds that showered the landscape from North Texas east to the Louisiana border objects including a space helmet, shuttle tiles and a 4-by-6-foot door.
Chris Nelson and his family stood at the edge of the parking lot surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape. He held a camera in one hand and an American flag in the other.
"I've been flying it to support our troops overseas," Mr. Nelson said. "I brought it because I felt like it ought to be here. I asked the National Guard if they would like to use it as a cover to put over the piece to honor what we've lost."
Sprays of flowers and roses of every color lay on the sidewalk. Some people simply left notes to the astronauts.
"May God be with these families and our nation," one said.
"For your courage and bravery, may God provide peace and comfort to your families," said another.
Officials counted more than 800 pieces of debris in Nacogdoches County. The largest was a drum 4 ½ feet tall and 10 feet around.
"Other than one small dent in the side, it's in pristine condition," state Rep. Max Sandlin said.
Others were shreds no bigger than a quarter, testimony to the terrible speed of Columbia's fall.
The shuttle was traveling an estimated 12,500 mph, or 208 miles a minute. It exploded at 200,000 feet, or 38 miles above earth.
The hail of debris over hundreds of miles was bound to make the Columbia explosion much more than a television experience for those who stumbled onto pieces in roadways, pastures, yards and parking lots.
Mr. White's two sons, 4 and 6, went outside to look for signs of what had exploded.
The boys told Mr. White they'd found a human leg near their hog pen. They covered it with a blanket and called police.
"From the hip to the foot," Mr. White said, "it's all there, scorched from the fire."
A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper stood guard over the scene. By 3 p.m., no one had shown up to take the leg away.
In nearby Hemphill, Clark Bennett noticed something on FM2971 but didn't think much of it until a friend, Mike Gibbs, an X-ray technician at Sabine County Hospital, told him about the explosion. The men met on the road at 9 a.m. and realized they'd apparently found an astronaut's remains.
"I wouldn't want anyone seeing what I saw," Mr. Gibbs said. "It was pretty gruesome."
The shuttle's crew cabin is built to withstand much greater pressure than the rest of the ship. That may have helped keep the astronauts' bodies from disintegrating.
'We can't touch it'
James Couch of Norwood in San Augustine County said he didn't hear anything when the shuttle came down, but his family did a rumbling noise and a sharp thump on the roof and they set off to investigate.
"We found debris in the yard and on the roof, mostly pipe and pieces, and some type of metal alloy. And a helmet," he said. "It's just a regular space helmet. It's intact. The only thing that's missing is the shield that goes on the front."
Police came to guard the debris, he said, and that was fine with him.
"We can't touch it," he said. "We don't want to touch it."
Knowing what to do
"What impressed me was that some people just innately knew what to do," said Terrie Gonzalez, managing editor of the Cherokeean/Herald in Rusk in Cherokee County, who trailed police much of the day as they followed up on reports of shuttle debris.
"One man found 10 pieces, spray-painted circles around them and marked them with a dowel rod and streamer," she said.
NASA team members reviewed some photos she shot and identified what they thought was an interior compartment and a pouch used in medical experiments.
Some people who found wreckage picked it up and carried it home. Others, like Pat Ivy, felt compelled to guard what they'd found.
Mr. Ivy, who lives in Cherokee County, found a chunk of charred metal on U.S. Highway 84 between Palestine and Rusk. He moved it to the road's shoulder and waited for law officers to arrive.
By midafternoon, dressed in overalls and work boots with a Styrofoam cooler at his side, he was still sitting in the bed of his pickup alongside the road.
"I want to make sure it gets in the right hands," he said. "They've got to piece this back together, and it's gonna take all these parts."
'It really was debris'
NASA officials warned people not to touch debris because they might be contaminated with hazardous chemicals and fuels.
The Fire Department in Palestine, a small Piney Woods town, set up a makeshift decontamination station in the hospital parking lot.
People who had picked up debris and who later feared for their health stripped naked and endured a rigorous cleansing process.
Medics then took them to the emergency room to check heartbeats, respiratory function and other vital signs.
Jamie Wooten, 22, was among 30 people who went through the decontamination process. She and four family members had handled a piece of 3-inch-thick insulation material that fell near their home.
"It was on the road. We pulled it up and brought it into our yard," she said. "We were joking about it being debris, and the police came by and said it really was debris."
A piece of debris about the size of a 12-inch crescent wrench fell through the roof and ceiling of a Nacogdoches optometrist's office.
Don Rudasill, owner of 20/20 EyeCare, said his wife, Kay, and niece, Robin, entered the office about 9 a.m. The two women are opticians.
"When they went to un-forward the phones and boot up the computers, this piece of debris was on the front desk and there was a hole in the ceiling," Mr. Rudasill said.
He described the piece as "a fairly dense metal object."
The place to be
Kelly Allen and her friends were trying to decide whether to stay in downtown Nacogdoches with all the television reporters and satellite trucks or go to the airport to look at another big piece of debris.
"I'm staying right here for CNN," she said. "I live in the middle of nowhere. This is a big deal. Somebody may put my name in the New York papers, saying I'm some idiot from East Texas, but I still want to see what's going on."
Nearby, Jo Carlson sat in a lawn chair, drinking tea from a Mason jar. She said she was there to block people from parking in her building's lot. But she said she was also there to soak up the atmosphere.
"I like to watch the crowd and hear what people are saying," she said.
Staff writers Robert T. Garrett, Dave Michaels, Lee Powell, David Sedeño, Robert Tharp, Scott Parks, Stella Chavez and Connie Piloto and The Associated Press contributed to this report.