Nacogdoches law enforcement remembers shuttle explosion, 15 years later

Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff

NACOGDOCHES COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - Fifteen years ago, Sergeant Greg Sowell and every other officer at the Nacogdoches Police Department found themselves responding to a problem they had never faced before.

"We were beginning to find pieces of what appeared to be aircraft," Sowell said. "And, we were finding them everywhere, in parking lots, anywhere you could think of."

Nacogdoches was used to seeing shuttles pass over, but the explosion of NASA's Columbia shuttle resulted in more 911 calls than dispatchers could answer.

"We begin to start trying to send an officer out to each, individual location to stand by with it," Sowell said. "That was the first plan. It took about ten minutes to figure out we couldn't do that because we didn't have enough people."

People were finding debris everywhere, all of which had to be turned over to federal agencies. But, in some cases that wasn't so easy.

"Most of the debris was in really rural areas of East Texas, primarily Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Sabine Counties," said Nacogdoches County Game Warden, Heath Bragg. "Most of it was on foot, and we found debris in all the creeks and the woods just everywhere you could imagine."

The FBI along with other federal officials made their way to debris locations. Sowell remembered the craziness that no one could have planned for.

"I remember it being a very chaotic day," Sowell said. "We were operating only on instinct because we didn't have time to feel anything, didn't have time for it to really sink in."

Like many, Sowell was in shock for days after the disaster.

"It was an accident that forever changed East Texas and forever changed most of us that worked it, I'm sure," Sowell said.

Bragg said that he and the other game wardens retrieved debris for weeks after the explosion.

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