20 years ago today: How an East Texas community and NASA came together as one

Columbia 20th Anniversary: A deeply personal remembrance of their sacrifice
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 8:56 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 at 10:59 PM CST
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HEMPHILL, Texas (KTRE) - After the Columbia broke apart over East Texas, the community of Hemphill and other surrounding areas came together to help in the search and recovery efforts, and feed and house thousands of people in this time of need.

As the Columbia was reentering earth over deep East Texas many residents in the surrounding areas could feel and hear the shuttle breaking apart. Marsha Cooper who is now retired from the U.S. Forest Service says it was a Saturday morning just before eight o’clock.

“Usually on Saturdays is when I do a little cleaning around the house. All of the sudden the Sonic booms started. I mean it was so intense,” Cooper said.

Cooper says she got a call from the U.S. Forest Service saying she needed to come in. As the news spread of the tragedy, many residents, like Patricia Smith, took action to help in any way they could.

“And we knew we needed to start getting food out there because we knew we didn’t have the infrastructure to host all of the people who were going to come in here,” Smith said.

20 years ago today: How the Hemphill community and NASA come together as one

Cooper says multiple agencies came together and began the search and rescue efforts.

“We had volunteers, we had people in the community that came out, people started showing up wanting to help,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile at the VFW other volunteers were fixing meals for the search and rescue crew.

“We fed the multitude during that time, just like the story in the Bible and it just happened. It was just by faith,” Cooper said.

Smith said the community came together and just did what they do: help others.

“And because we didn’t have the infrastructure, our community just came together,” Smith said.

Cooper says the community’s generosity touched a lot of hearts during this time.

“And we still do, it was a lot of people who gave a lot and continued to give a lot,” Cooper said.

The Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Vanessa Wyche, says NASA and this community are forever bonded together.

“The community came out to help with the search and recovery, and helped not only with bringing food, but comfort and support,” Wyche said.

The Patricia Huffman Smith NASA Museum ‘Remembering Columbia’ In Hemphill opened in 2011 on the 8th anniversary of the Columbia tragedy.