The Athens Review
Former Henderson County Sheriff Ronny Brownlow’s recollections of February 1, 2003, begin with the sound of a boom and a rattle of windows.
But the noise heard that Saturday morning wasn’t from outside the door or down the street. It was the sound of the Space Shuttle Columbia exploding and breaking to pieces 200,000 feet overhead.
“I was at the house when I heard it,” said Brownlow, who retired in 2008. “I had no idea what it was until the office called. For the first few hours our dispatch center and patrol deputies were busier than anybody.”
As for what was left of the spacecraft, its contents and crew drifted to the earth below and scattered over a wide section of Northeast Texas — including southern Henderson County.
“Most of it was found south and east of Athens. Naturally officials wanted to salvage as much as they could to get it put back together and find out what actually happened,” Brownlow said. Sheriff’s Office records show 65 calls reporting possible sightings of Columbia debris with 36 confirmed as shuttle remains.
“One of the things I remember is there was a piece found at the school in Cross Roads. People, including myself, didn’t know whether or not it might be contaminated. The superintendent was concerned about whether or not to open the school.”
Brownlow said State Senator (and now Agriculture Commissioner) Todd Staples was helpful in getting the Cross Roads debris collected. Staples had come home to Palestine for a weekend break in the legislative session. His restful Saturday soon turned into one of the longest days of his tenure as state senator.
“I was reading bills and things and heard the explosion,” Staples said. “I looked out the window and saw that nothing looked off, so I went back to work.”
About 20 minutes later, he was informed by telephone that the Columbia had exploded overhead.
“I phoned my dad who lived out on our homeplace in the country and asked what was going on out there,” Staples said. “He said the cattle were stampeding because of the loud boom.”
Staples could see from television news reports that East Texas was the center of post shuttle crash attention.
“It was predominantly in Senate District 3,” Staples said, referring to his own district at the time. “I went to the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office and obviously there was a lot of commotion. The sheriff’s assistant stuck out the phone and said ‘You’ve got to take this. It’s Fox News.’”
A Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper escorted Staples to various places in East Texas where remains of the Columbia had been found.
“We pulled up to the Chinquapen Baptist Church on a rural FM road,” Staples said. “There were about 40 people assembled with blue jackets that said “FBI” Emergency Recovery Team on them. As we drove up a hearse was leaving the facility.”
Staples said he is still impressed by the way East Texans pulled together to do what was necessary to recover the Columbia remains. He is still moved to think of the loss of astronauts aboard the doomed craft.
“They were modern day pioneers,” Staples said.
Despite the many sightings of debris in the Henderson County area, the bulk of the remains came to rest in far East Texas and the Nacogdoches area.
“A lot of that went down in those forests,” Brownlow said. “They had a lot of open area to cover that they called and Deputy Jim Ellis took several members of the (Henderson County) Sheriff’s Posse and took their horses down there to help look for it. They were there for several days and were actually recognized by NASA for their efforts in the recovery.”