National Guard Takes to the Air and Ground in Columbia Disaster Support
By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 3, 2003 National Guard airmen and soldiers joined the grim and painstaking search for debris from the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia soon after it disintegrated over Texas Feb. 1.
The Guard's efforts are tied in with other military and civilian support efforts.
Two F-15 fighters from the Louisiana Air Guard's 159th Fighter Wing began an aerial search for wreckage over the vast region of eastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana about a half hour after countless bits and pieces of the Columbia had fallen on the countryside.
Just as quickly, the Texas National Guard's 6th Civil Support Team, based in Austin, was dispatched to east Texas to begin testing pieces of debris for hazardous residue. Twenty- one members of that team spent much of Sunday testing, photographing and collecting pieces of debris around four schools in Nacogdoches, Palestine and Naches, explained Maj. Michael Dietz, the team's deputy commander.
Army Guard soldiers in both states spent the weekend helping state and local police officers guard pieces of the Columbia. The spacecraft broke apart 39 miles above Texas 16 minutes before it was scheduled to touch down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida following a 16-day scientific mission. All seven members of the crew, including five U.S. service members and Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, died.
In all, 184 members of the Texas National Guard were supporting the recovery mission by Sunday afternoon, explained spokesman Lt. Col. John Stanford. They included 96 Army Guard soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 133rd Field Artillery, who were helping to guard debris sites in Nacogdoches and Lufkin. They also included members of a dozen UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews who were primed to fly a variety of missions for NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Texas officials, Stanford said.
A Texas Guard counterdrug airplane equipped with infrared sensors also joined the search for wreckage that included computer chips, fuel cells five feet in diameter, and "pieces of tile all over the place," one Guard officer explained.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command diverted a total of four F-15s from the Air Guard fighter wing near New Orleans to look for debris Saturday, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. That mission was suspended Saturday night, and the wing was not asked to resume those flights on Sunday, explained Dusty Shenofsky, spokesperson for the Louisiana National Guard.
Meanwhile, 24 Army Guard soldiers from Louisiana's 199th Support Battalion were helping to safeguard debris sites in that state by Sunday afternoon, said Shenofsky. Debris had been located in 13 places, scattered over some remote and rugged terrain, within six Louisiana parishes, she added.
"Nacogdoches is the urban epicenter for the debris, and that's where a lot of it has been located because people live there," noted Dietz from Texas' 6th Civil Support Team.
But much of the area where debris has been reported lies in the Piney Woods timber region of east Texas, which is rugged and densely wooded in places.
In addition to the Texas unit, so far National Guard civil support teams from Oklahoma and Arkansas have also been tapped to survey debris sites and test the wreckage for toxic substances that could harm other emergency responders and the public.
(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is senior correspondent in the National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Office, Arlington, Va.)