“It was a huge effort. The county, the city, the state, the federal government and several different agencies within these organizations were all working together.”
Now that a decade has passed, it's time to reflect on the tragedy while at the same time honor those who died, she said.
“I think it's important that we just don't forget, and we continue to remember and to honor. Everyone does that differently,” Ms. O'Brien said.
For Texas A&M Forest Service training coordinator Frank Wofford, it means remembering his good friend Charles Krenek, another forest service employee who was killed in a helicopter crash while looking for debris. Wofford worked with Krenek for more than 20 years.
“I kind of think of (him) when I think of the space shuttle. I think of him and his friendship, and how what happened to him, how that's affected his family,” Wofford said.
Lindsey Mathews, meeting and event coordinator with the Nacogdoches Convention and Visitors Bureau, was in high school when the Columbia explosion occurred.
“I was at a friend's house. We woke up because we heard rattling and … we all came down here (downtown) with people, and it was mass crowds of spectators and debris,” she said.
She also recalled that there were a lot of people walking and scanning through the area around the home she grew up in.
Melissa Sanford, executive director of the convention and visitors bureau, said time has gone by fast.
“It's hard to believe it was 10 years ago because it doesn't seem to be that long,” she said. “I don't really think about it any different. It's just as tragic as it was then. … I never thought about it so much as an event as a tragedy because it was lives that were lost and families that were affected.”
She said she was home that Saturday and remembers seeing what everyone else did on TV. When people see memorabilia in the convention and visitors bureau, it jogs their memory, she said.
Nacogdoches environmental health officer Tommy Wheeler was on a bicycle training ride when he heard commotion.
He said he knew something bad happened, so he went back into town and as he got close, he started seeing debris.
“It was even smoldering. You could see it steaming. That's how fresh it was on the ground,” he said, adding that at first he assumed a plane had crashed.
Wheeler said no one knew how to handle the material, and in at least one grocery store, produce was removed because of concerns about people touching shuttle debris and then handling produce.
From time to time, hunters today still find debris, and during the recent drought, a lot of debris was found in lakes, he said. It's also been a learning experience.
“The way it's changed us is you never know what can happen, especially with emergency management, so really you have to be prepared for all hazards,” Wheeler said.
He said there haven't been a significant amount of changes to the emergency plan, which addresses all hazards — manmade and natural.
However, Wheeler said the one thing he took away is how well people respond.
“All groups, public and private, were able to come together …” he said, adding that volunteers helped provide workers with food and water during recovery efforts.
It's “reassuring to see how the entire community comes together to do work side-by-side. People came from all over the United States to respond.”
Stephen F. Austin State University geography professor Darrel McDonald said the Columbia Regional Geospatial Service Center was a project that developed as a result of that local response.
Stephen F. Austin faculty and staff helped build applications and services for emergency responders, and in the five years the center was strongly active, it worked with local, regional and state agencies, along with some national agencies.
“Our model was to be a local entity that was known and used by other emergency response first responders as a way to leverage local knowledge with this geospatial technology,” he said.
McDonald said data can be used to help responders address issues more quickly and provide good mapping for those who've never been to East Texas.
Overall, he said the goal is to integrate local response with modern tools of technology so people can respond more quickly.
“It was that localness that allowed us to do focus training with police departments, fire departments (and) county judges to help them better understand (this) approach,” McDonald said.
“We would help them build databases of where things were and what things looked like, which they could then access with maps.”
At Stephen F. Austin, he said the experience has helped develop a whole curriculum. Students can now earn a GIS degree or a geography degree that uses GIS. McDonald said Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, is often described as “smart maps” that show where objects are such as the location of fire hydrants in Tyler.
A lot of local response groups across East Texas also now have GIS, and those databases become a unified resource to respond to various issues, McDonald said.
Nacogdoches Police Sgt. Greg Sowell knows first-hand what it's like for responders.
He served as a public information officer in the aftermath of the Columbia explosion and on some material recovery teams.
He said the Saturday morning of the explosion was normal but suddenly turned into “complete chaos.”
“The chaos began, and I called dispatch. They didn't know what was going on. I figured the worst. It was a whirlwind. The next thing I know what started out as a normal Saturday morning, 15 minutes later I'm doing an interview on CNN,” he said.
“We didn't really know the magnitude of this. We were in contact with NASA and federal agencies. We were receiving instructions from them. They were doing the best they could. We were doing the best we could (because) no one had ever done this before.”
He said the responders in the first five hours “were kind of on autopilot,” but about noon or 1 p.m. reality set in that responders were dealing with a catastrophic space craft accident.
Like others, he said his takeaway was the way East Texans and the public cooperated and showed genuine respect for people.
“I think our citizenry were one of first groups that realized we are dealing with the death of seven individuals here, all of which have families,” Sowell said.
He recalled that there was a piece of material behind a bank that became a shrine.
On the Sunday after the Columbia explosion, at least 300 or 400 people were in that parking lot, and no one spoke above a whisper, Sowell said.
“I walked out of a building, walked uptown and ran across this,” Sowell said. “It will be forever burned in my mind — 400 people, some crying. There was a reverence about it that I was proud of.”
As far as changes in the last decade, he said he believes NASA has a better perspective on East Texans, and how they react to things like Columbia. Likewise, he said he thinks East Texans feel a connection with the space program.
He said he also believes there were a lot of lessons learned from Columbia, and it's something that should never be forgotten.
Former Tyler Morning Telegraph executive editor Jim Giametta said Columbia was one of the biggest news stories he worked in his 50-year journalism career. He described it as “a severe tragedy that had national impact.”
“The tragedy and explosion on reentry of the shuttle brought to me how fragile the space program was as far as the dangers associated with exploration,” Giametta said. “I think it underlined to a lot of people that these people were real pioneers that put their life on the line … by exploring new frontiers.”
If it weren't for such space exploration, some new technology and other things likely would not have been discovered, he said.
Giametta also recalled learning about images taken by Dr. Scott Lieberman of the shuttle breaking apart over East Texas.
“When I saw those images he had, I just looked at them and said 'You're on the brink of history here,'” he said. “I knew then we had to preserve those images so I worked with him to get the photo copyrighted.”
Giametta still has Lieberman's image framed in his home.
Tyler Morning Telegraph archives were used for some of this report.