Investigators have made an important discovery in their hunt for rubble from space shuttle Columbia, locating the spacecraft's nose cone in a heavily wooded area of eastern Texas.
A crew was to return to the site Tuesday to excavate the cone, which was found partially buried in a hole described by state troopers as 20 feet wide.
"It's basically the front of the nose cone," said Warren Zehner, an Environmental Protection Agency senior on-scene coordinator. "It's reasonably intact."
The nose cone represents one of the biggest findings to date. Although the search for debris has turned up thousands of tiny shuttle pieces, the cone is one of the largest and most recognizable parts and could potentially provide insight into how the shuttle disintegrated over Texas on Saturday, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
The shattered shuttle was effectively being reconstructed from an area larger than West Virginia. That includes the massive Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana state line, where divers using sonar equipment are searching for what authorities believe is a car-size chunk.
Some 12,000 pieces of debris had been collected in the region by late Monday afternoon. Although the search was grisly at times, with human remains reportedly found at 15 locations in Nacogdoches County alone, law officers were satisfied with the results.
"It was a very, very good day," Billy Smith, emergency management coordinator for three Texas counties, said Monday. "This was probably one of the best days we've had."
The cone was found a few miles from Hemphill, a town of about 1,200 people that has become a focus of the search. Hemphill is 130 miles northeast of Houston and Johnson Space Center.
State troopers near the site were stationed at a roadway to keep media and others from the area. Embedded in a tree near the nose cone was what appeared to be a black tile.
About 10 searchers emerged from the woods with bags full of debris, including metal objects. They filled a bed of a pickup truck with shuttle fragments.
The EPA, which is overseeing debris collection, has been using an airplane equipped with infrared sensors that can spot fragments that might be tainted with hazardous chemicals.
Using pushpins to mark debris sites, an independent investigative team headed by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. and NASA examiners have set up a command post at Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base, where some body parts and shuttle fragments were being collected.
NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said NASA was particularly interested in any pieces that may have fallen from Columbia as far west as New Mexico, Arizona or California. The FBI was checking reports of possible debris in Arizona.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Dittemore said, referring to tracking bits of the 6-by-6 inch thermal tiles that covered Columbia. "But that is not going to keep us from looking for it."
The recovery effort is daunting due to the size and scope of the debris field. It stretched west to east 380 miles from Eastland, Texas, to Alexandria, La., and north-south 230 miles from Sulphur Springs, Texas, to metropolitan Houston.
Louisiana state police confirmed more than two dozen chunks of debris in 11 different parishes. Authorities recovered a 3-by-4-foot metal panel with small holes from a thicket in Sabine Parish, on the Texas border. Vernon Parish chief deputy Calvin Turner said four chunks of metal were found in the parish
"We'll be finding stuff months down the road. I'd say hunting season is when people will be picking stuff up, or we'll never find it at all," Turner said.
Milton Breaux, a house painter from Scott, La., said he and a friend were fishing in a boat at 8 a.m. Saturday morning on the Toledo Bend Reservoir when they heard something hitting the water. He said he heard six to 10 splashes in three or four minutes.
"It made kind of a singing or sizzling sound when it was coming down," he said. "What I guess were the smaller things made a sound like a rifle firing when they hit the water. The bigger ones sounded more like a shotgun blast hitting."