On the day after the space shuttle Columbia broke up over the skies of Texas, Trooper Ron Mann was attending services. "I was in church Sunday morning, got a page that I needed to contact my supervisor," he said.
The orders were clear and simple. Pack for three to five days, head to east Texas. "The first assignment we got was to report to Nacogdoches," said Mann.
Once there, he joined the ranks of state, local, and federal officials all scrambling to contain and explore a massive debris field. "We didn't really realize how big the area was we were going to have to search and recover debris until they starting separating a lot of the troopers and sending them to Hemphill and St. Augustine and Nacogdoches which is about a 60 to 70 mile area," he said.
The days of recovery were long. Up at 4 a.m. Time for lunch was a luxury. Working fast but carefully. "We took our cameras and we'd photograph it, mark the debris, describe it, and place it in the bag, and the GPS personnel would get the coordinates and then we would take the debris back to the evidence building at the command post," he said.
In total, he recovered nearly 30 pieces of the shuttle. Items resembling door frames, window seals, and two of the shuttle's 20 fuel cells. "I saw one that was whole and I also picked up one that was in a half shell. They looked really heavy, but they were made out of titanium and they were really light. You could pick them up by yourself," he said.
An unforgettable experience of loss, recovery, and history. "20 years from now, our kids can talk about it, tell my kids about it," said Mann.