HEMPHILL, Texas – Searchers trudging through the East Texas woods Sunday found a charred hatch door with a hydraulic opening mechanism believed to have been part of the space shuttle Columbia.
"The hatch for the most part was intact," said Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss. "It does have some tearing of the metal and several protective shields had been dislodged from the door, but some of those were still in place."
Kerss said the door measured 3 feet by 3 feet and was "fairly heavy." It wasn't immediately clear what part of the shuttle it may have come from.
Two other large pieces of shuttle debris located Sunday remained in a remote area where recovery teams planned to retrieve them Monday, Kerss said. He said crews had also identified another site of possible human remains.
So far, the most significant shuttle parts recovered since Columbia broke up high over Texas Feb. 1 have been a 2-foot long section of wing and a covering for a landing gear hatch. If they came from the left side, where sensors showed heating in the final moments, they could hold vital clues to what went wrong.
Searchers began their ninth day Sunday in a cold rain, struggling through mud and briars and up steep grades amid the ticks and other bugs of the East Texas woods and bogs.
"I don't think any one thing really hurts you all that much," said Timothy Palermo, a National Guardsman from Port Arthur, Texas. But he said it can be frustrating: "You can spend all day hacking your way through an area and not have gone two miles because of the terrain."
Richard Bradley, a doctor with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Rescue, is monitoring one member of the search teams for a cough that may have been triggered by a toxic substance on shuttle debris. But for the most part, he has been seeing cuts and sore muscles.
"We treat a lot of blisters, remove a lot of ticks, put lotion on a lot of scratches and see a lot of bruises," he said.
At the Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the Texas-Louisiana border, the weather has kept divers from searching areas where sonar detected what could be shuttle debris. They hope to send divers in this week, but in the meantime are using a small, self-propelled device that beams back pictures from amid the deep silt and fallen pine trees that cover the reservoir floor.
"We have at least one area that looks good," said NASA astronaut Steve Bowman. "It was brought to our attention by a witness and backed up by sonar sweeps that revealed some sizable debris there. Now, we just need to verify that it's from the shuttle and not a door from a '49 Chevrolet."
For the searchers, one of the biggest problems has been fatigue.
"Most of us are operating on two, three, four hours of sleep," said Scott Harris of the Environmental Protection Agency. "You're tired all the time."
National Guard units are averaging about four hours sleep a night, said Capt. Anthony Hall, with the 386th Engineering unit out of Houston. Most of the guardsmen involved have been sleeping in auditoriums, churches and schools. A few have been in tents.
"If we were called up to war, we would see about the same thing, so our troops are trained for this," Hall said. "But over an extended period it will wear people down."