LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) – It was an event whose impact is still felt enormously in East Texas.
"It just doesn't seem like seven years ago," said Lt.. Bryan Holley, Angelina Co. Sheriff's Office.
The morning of February 1, 2003 began with reports of an explosion in the sky.
"Getting flurried with so many calls about something exploding in the air. We didn't know if it was an airplane initially - we didn't know exactly what it was," described Lt. Holley.
They knew, however, that something was definitely wrong.
"There was debris and things falling."
What had actually transpired made its way through the channels quickly. Space shuttle Columbia - on its way home - had not made it. The response from area law enforcement was immediate.
"And the sheriff and I headed over there to find out what they needed. If they needed man power we would send as many people as we could send. Everyone in our department - every agency we talked to sent every man that they could send," said Capt. James Galloway, Angelina Co. Sheriff's Office.
With hardly time to comprehend what had happened - they got to work.
"The initial day, the initial hours after it everything was simply that: respond, secure an area - if you find anything, mark it and let the powers that be know where its at," said Lt. Holley.
"We're talking miles and miles of debris. Our job initially was to secure the roads so that citizens weren't out picking up debris and carrying it off," said Capt. Galloway.
Every piece of debris was needed for the investigation.
"So they could try and find out what caused the explosion," explained Capt. Galloway.
After a week securing debris - the Angelina County Sheriff's Office headed back to Lufkin.
"We came back here and assisted FEMA. We assisted NASA setting up their Regional Response Headquarters," said Lt. Holley.
The partnership formed between local, state and federal agencies was the silver lining of this horrific tragedy.
"Its one of the biggest efforts in a recovery that probably the nation has - the United States has ever seen," said Lt. Holley.
It also highlighted problems with the state's communication technology.
"Since then, the federal government with the state has started an in-operability plan where all the State of Texas is getting on board where we can all talk on the radio's together," said Capt. Galloway.
The tragedy also brings out the best in people.
"My sheriff - when we first got over there and they started picking up body parts. His first words were that everyone of them would be handled like it was a whole person. They got ambulances out, and hearses out, and they cared for those people right," said Capt. Galloway.
The Angelina County Sheriff's Office also wanted to recognize Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox for his incredible effort right after the Columbia tragedy.