Police officer recalls frantic search for remains after Columbia tragedy



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Posted on February 1, 2013 at 8:10 PM

HEMPHILL, Texas -- Ten years ago when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart, most of the pieces fell in East Texas.

The debris field was the size of Rhode Island. It took thousands of volunteers to collect the pieces and recover the remains of the astronauts.

Sgt. Greg Sowell of the Nacogdoches Police Department lead teams of volunteers through the East Texas woods looking for what was left of the Columbia.

"The pieces ranged in size from a quarter, to the size that would need a tractor trailer to pick it up," Sowell said.

The task was daunting.

"What we had was an accident scene that covered miles, and miles, and miles, and we treated as such," Sowell said.

Volunteers went into treacherous conditions to recover what they could, braving severe weather, rough terrain, wild animals and snakes.

"I saw volunteers in front of my house months and months later," Sowell said. "Firefighters from out of town and out of state lined up shoulder to shoulder to walk the entire patch of woods that I had been told my entire life to stay out of."

Within 12 days, the searchers found the remains of all seven astronauts and that's why many spent countless of hours searching.

"They realized, like I realized, that not only was this a terrible accident, but seven lives were lost," Sowell said.

The search went on for months, and to this day, pieces of the shuttle are being found here in East Texas.

E-mail rlopez@wfaa.com