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From the Archive: Bringing Home America's Astronauts: The Shuttle Columbia Incident - Search & Recovery in Texas

Author: Harold Schapelhouman. Task Force Leader, FEMA CA-TF3

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-02-01
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Originally Published in our May 2003 issue.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, lost when the spacecraft disintegrated on re-entry. Photo via NASA

In honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, we present this article which covered the Search & Rescue operations to recover the remains of the Shuttle and its crew in Texas.  During the Feb 1, 2003 incident, FEMA deployed three Incident Support Teams and six Human Remains Recovery Canine Teams from its US&R system in order to successfully recover the astronauts’ remains from a debris path spread across Texas and into Louisiana.  This mission was accomplished within two weeks.

As a child growing up in the early 1960’s, I sat cross legged and wide eyed in amazement in front of our black and white television watching as America’s Space Program created a lasting impression of all that was possible in life.

So it was in 1981, as a student firefighter, that I convinced my friends that instead of going directly to the beach that day, we needed to stop at a local fire station along the way and ask to watch Columbia, Americas first shuttle, launch. Fortunately they welcomed us in.

I remember that it was a beautiful day that day, perfect weather, for a perfect launch!  As Columbia lifted into the sky we all watched in amazement and cheered the event. Little could I have imagined that over 20 years later I would be involved with one of the largest ground based searches in our nation’s history, tasked with finding the crew of the Shuttle Columbia.

Like many, I was both shocked, and saddened, to hear about the demise of the seven brave astronauts. As a member of one the Federal Emergency Management Agencies (FEMA) Incident Support Teams (IST), our Team was alerted shortly after the event via nationwide pagers.

As it became clear that the astronauts had physically sustained re-entry, the mission of recovering them developed, and prompted the activation of part of our Team, one of three national ISTs under the Federal Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Response System.

Specifically, an initial mission request involving six Human Remains Recovery Canine Teams, assets of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CAL-OES), and a Team Veterinarian, would be deployed from within our Task Force, California Task Force 3.  The Task Force is one of 29 national teams, and is based out of the city of Menlo Park, located within the Silicon Valley portion of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Members of an FBI Evidence Recovery Team searches for debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia in Texas.  FEMA deployed three Incident Support Teams and six Human Remains Recovery Canine Teams from its US&R system in order to successfully recover the astronauts’ remains.  This mission was accomplished within two weeks.  Photo: CA TF3

When the Canine and Advance element of the IST arrived in Texas, they were initially directed to respond to the City of Lufkin Convention Center, where a Federal Area Command Post had been established. FEMA, tasked by the President, provided overall Incident Recovery and Support, while NASA took the lead with the FBI, providing operational guidance and support with Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) out in the field, and by coordinating with other local, State and Federal Law enforcement agencies, Military, US Coast Guard (USCG), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Working in conjunction with local search efforts, NASA, FBI, USCG, EPA, Texas Forest Service, Texas US&R Task Force 1 (TX-TF1) and others, were directed out to San Augustine and Sabine Counties where local foot searches were producing significant recoveries of both the craft and the crew.

As I was activated along with our veterinarian, Pat Grant, and the other remaining members of our Federal Team, significant headway and basic coordination issues were evolving. The Texas State Forest Service provided important initial griding of the search areas, and was keeping track of field recovery information. NASA had developed the “trajectory line,” a one-mile wide primary search corridor along the shuttles flight path, and the FBI was managing the overall process with FEMA’s support.

I was assigned as the FEMA IST Division Group Supervisor to San Augustine County. My counterpart, Mike Brown, from Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, was assigned to Sabine County.

San Augustine County, like many small communities suffering through economic downturns, was already three quarters of a million dollars in fiscal debt prior to the Shuttle Incident. Despite the depressed local economy, local citizens and civic groups provided overwhelmingly significant and crucial incident support and overhead. Without their initial efforts, Federal responders would have been overwhelmed, and their capacity to be effective would have deteriorated considerably.

As we coordinated field canine search operations with members of Texas Task Force 1 and both local and regional volunteer canine search teams, it was clear that as the only person with a FEMA shirt on within the San Augustine Command Post, I would be pulled in many directions, despite my specific tasking.

Mike Stephens with East Texas K9 Search and Rescue, Dee Wild with Louisiana K9 SAR, and Billy Parker, Search Team Manager with TX-TF1, took on primary Canine Search Management of the 8 volunteer and 7 Federal Canine Teams and their mission assignments in San Augustine County. I integrated into the Command Post Team, working closely with our FBI Incident Commanders, Glenn and Dale, two of the most competent leaders I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

SAR K9 handlers Bev Peabody and Addela Morris, and their dog Riley, are briefed by Mike Stephens from Texas SAR prior to a morning search in the San Augustine area. Photo: CA TF3

Initial Canine searches had been underutilized, only confirming areas that had been cleared by FBI ERTs, and also providing spot searches on request. As the process progressed, tactical objectives were refined, and Canine Searches became more focused, providing area wide coverage.

Of significant benefit was the combination of volunteer and state Geographic Information Systems (GIS) individuals. Their roles evolved within the Command Post Team. The significance of utilizing Global Positioning Systems (GPS), combined with the mapping and tracking capabilities of the GIS group, and coordinated with strategic Command objectives, produced timely and accurate daily results of critical data, which helped to shape tactical field missions in both Counties and the Lufkin Federal Command Post as we shared information with them.

Perhaps the most significant data was developed using information passed back from the Coroner’s office and through the FBI to members of the San Augustine Command Staff.

With the assistance of Doctor Matt Minson with TX-TF1, we were able to analyze valuable anatomical data which, when coordinated with GPS and the GIS team, produced specific search zones of interest on maps which were then used to drive area specific searches in both San Augustine and Sabine Counties.

This concept eliminated random searches and allowed critical canine resources to be more effectively utilized. It also focused these tactical assets in a period of time when weather, fatigue, capacity, and time, had reached a critical point within the operation.

Mike Stephens from Texas K9 Search & Rescue briefs the group on search patterns and protocols.  Photo: CA TF3

Perhaps the unforeseen benefit of this event played itself out at the Lufkin Federal Command Post Center where overhead and planning elements of the FEMA US&R IST, Texas Forest Service and Coast Guard were able to provide other Federal Agencies, many of whom will be merging into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a firsthand look at how interagency cooperation, unified command, and the Incident Command System (ICS), can help to coordinate and facilitate management of any unique and complex operation.

In total, at least 20 volunteers, and 23 Federally sponsored canine teams from throughout the Nation participated in a well-coordinated ground based search along with over a thousand other dedicated individuals who searched an estimated 90 Square Miles in the difficult terrain of both San Augustine, and Sabine Counties, in Deep East Texas. This was accomplished in 14 days during Phase 1 of the Shuttle Columbia Incident.

Not unlike our experiences at the World Trade Center and after the Oklahoma City Bombing was the understandable desire of the NASA family, primarily the astronauts, to be involved with the respectful recovery of their colleagues. And just as predictable was the underlying edge of human anguish and loss felt by these individuals when we spoke or as I looked into their faces. In the days and weeks following my return from Texas, it took some before I was finally able to allow myself to look at the pictures of the Columbia’s crew.

As the recovery of the Astronauts successfully concluded, the second phase of the operation was beginning. This would involve three Federal Incident Management Teams (IMTs) and multiple Type II Hand Crews working in conjunction with rotary wing aircraft focused primarily on the recovery of the spacecraft. As of this writing, and after almost 30 days into Phase II of this operation, over 15% of the craft by weight has been located.

For those of us who came together to find the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, we will always be proud of our role in bringing America’s Astronauts home to their families.

At the time of this writing, Harold Schapelhouman was the Division Chief, Special Operations, for the Menlo Park (CA) Fire Protection District, and the Task Force Leader of California US&R Task Force 3.  He is also a member of the 9-1-1 Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. 
[Schapelhouman is currently Chief of the Menlo Park (CA) Fire Protection District.]

Eva Cecil and Nessie from California US&R Task Force 3, next to a memorial to the Shuttle Astronauts in downtown San Augustine, Texas.  Photo: CA TF3

 

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