Americans Mourn Shuttle Columbia Crew
At Churches, Grieving for Shuttle Columbia Crew; in Texas and Louisiana, Daunting Hunt for DebrisThe Associated Press
United again in sorrow, Americans mourned the deaths of the space shuttle astronauts at church services Sunday, while investigators mobilized to determine what went wrong. Search crews some on horseback, some in helicopters tracked charred debris across Texas and Louisiana.
"I don't know that we'll ever find all these pieces," said Sheriff Thomas Kerss, overseeing the hunt for hundreds, possibly thousands, of bits of wreckage strewn over Nacogdoches County after the shuttle burst apart above Texas.
At churches across America, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, at a U.S. Army base in Afghanistan, even in the Iraq National Assembly, the loss of the seven Columbia astronauts gave rise to grief and reflection.
"A lot of things occur, we just wonder why and how," said Jim Andreini, 58, attending a service at Grace Brethren Church in Westerville, Ohio. "We like to think it's all part of the plan. Sometimes, it's hard to understand."
Officials said the collected debris would be trucked to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for analysis by engineering experts. Their findings will be part of a NASA investigation aimed at discovering why the shuttle disintegrated Saturday, just moments from its scheduled landing in Florida.
NASA chief Sean O'Keefe said investigators, though open to all possibilities, would focus initially on whether insulation from a fuel tank caused damage during Columbia's Jan. 16 ascent that ultimately doomed the shuttle.
A special federal commission also will conduct an investigation, with its emphasis on policy matters affecting the future of the U.S. space program. Harold W. Gehman Jr., the retired Navy admiral who helped lead the Pentagon's inquiry into the USS Cole bombing, will head that commission.
Committees in the House and Senate also plan to examine the disaster.
"The key issue for us in Congress is why did it happen, how did it happen, how do we fix it and then how do we project on forward with manned space flight?" said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "We need to continue that for the vision of the country and the vision of the world."
Across hundreds of square miles of Texas and Louisiana, civilian and military authorities used horses, four-wheel drive vehicles, Army helicopters and satellite data to locate shuttle debris in pastures, woods and swamps.
Human remains, including a charred torso, were found along the Texas-Louisiana state line. At a school in Douglas, Texas, 150 miles northeast of Houston, debris dented the roof and dotted the baseball field.
Kerss said it could be weeks or months before searchers reach remote areas that might hold pieces of the shuttle.
No injuries were reported due to falling debris. But Sue Kennedy, emergency management coordinator for Nacogdoches County, said 70 people went to local hospitals because they touched debris and were concerned about possible toxic contamination.
As law enforcement agencies struggled to protect the bits of wreckage, NASA warned against trying to auction purported Columbia debris on Ebay.
"People should not be collecting that at all. It's all government property," said Bruce Buckingham, a NASA spokesman.
In Iraq, bracing for possible war with the United States, the government issued no formal statement about Columbia, but some officials expressed sympathy for the American people.
"We respect their feelings and share their sadness," said Bushra al-Samarai, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly.
Both the shuttle disaster and Iraq were evoked at the church service attended by President Bush. The Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John's Church across from the White House, said he had heard others suggest the shuttle's breakup was "God's way of getting back at us" for Bush's Iraq policies.
"That's just garbage," Leon said. "What happened yesterday I think is the price that we pay for exploration, it's the price that we pay for the freedom that God has granted all of us."
In Houston, the entrance to the Johnson Space Center was turned into a shrine for the fallen astronauts shuttle commander Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, William McCool and Ilan Ramon. Mourners left flowers, burning candles, teddy bears, American flags and notes.
"You're our hero," said a note for Ramon, the first Israeli in space.
For embattled Israelis, who had rejoiced in Ramon's mission as a respite from constant violence with the Palestinians, the disaster was a devastating blow to morale.
"We got another slap in the face," said Gabi Moor, a barber whose shop is next to a recently bombed cafe. "It's like there is a jinx on us."
In Bagram, Afghanistan, the shuttle disaster deepened the grief already felt by U.S. troops after a helicopter crash killed four soldiers Thursday. "There's been a lot of death this week, a lot of sadness," said Maj. Tom Roltsch of Alexandria, Va.
Russia launched an unmanned cargo ship to the international space station Sunday, a day after the loss of the Columbia threw future missions to the orbiting complex in doubt. Russian spacecraft and American shuttles have shared the task of supplying the space station with fuel, equipment and mail for the crew.
Russian space officials offered condolences for the astronauts aboard the Columbia, and said the disaster may put Moscow's cash-strapped space program under more pressure to deliver crews and supplies to the station.
photo credit and caption:
Ana Bridgs, 4, bottom center, joins her grandmother Marian Barnes and the rest of the Jeffrey Barnes Choir in singing a song at The Baha'i Center of Los Angeles, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003, to honor the astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia. The shuttle tore to pieces Saturday 39 miles above Texas, killing all seven astronauts, in the last 16 minutes of a 16-day mission, as the spaceship re-entered Earth's atmosphere. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson).
©Copyright 2003, Associated Press (USA)
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