San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood sees Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003 – 18 years ago Monday – as being one of a handful of historic dates burned into our national conscience by tragedy.
“We saw the videos of it come up,” Hood said, recalling news of the space shuttle Columbia breaking apart as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board. “I think all of us probably remember where we were the day that happened.”
Hood was with his wife at a friend’s anniversary party at a hotel in Tucson, Arizona.
As Columbia broke apart, thousands of pieces of shuttle debris rained across East Texas and Louisiana, Hood learned from news reports. The shuttle had been just 15 minutes away from landing when disaster struck.
At the time, the Arizona native was a battalion chief in the Phoenix Fire Department, a member of its Urban Search and Rescue team and of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue’s National Incident Support Team. Three days after the shuttle’s catastrophic disintegration, Hood was authorized to fly to East Texas to serve as one of the strike team leaders in charge of searching for the shuttle’s black box, debris, and human remains.
Killed in an instant in the shuttle were the mission’s commander, Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband; pilot William C. McCool, a U.S. Navy commander; mission specialist and payload commander Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson of the U.S. Air Force; payload specialist Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force; and mission specialists Navy Capt. David M. Brown, Navy Capt. Laurel B. Clark, and aerospace engineer Kalpana Chawla.
Hood said over the next 14 days he built lifelong relationships with his recovery team of about 120 people. About half of Hood’s charge were Native American wildland firefighters. Also on his team were two NASA engineers and a few explosive specialists from the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Our base camp was in Huntsville, Texas,” along with about 1,000 other searchers, Hood said. “We slept in tents – we piled up pallets beneath us because the ground was so wet. We were sleeping in a swamp. We were wet and cold every single day.”
And all of them were under intense pressure to find the debris as quickly as possible. The experience was surreal, he recalled.
“We would go out and line up and basically walk through probably about 10 miles a day, just of some of the densest vegetation you could ever see,” Hood said. “We would walk, whether it was through 5 or 6 feet of water, whether it’s through a pasture, or anything else like that.”
With much of the search area consisting of swamplands, warm weather would cause “greenouts,” or rapid blooms of foliage, Hood explained. This put any debris at risk for being buried beneath thick greenery where it would likely never be recovered, he said.
He and his team looked for telltale signs of wreckage, such as broken tree branches, or unnatural structures, Hood said. Using satellites and helicopters to help pinpoint debris, he and his team helped recover everything from small bits of the shuttle to the front landing gear, he said.
“It was quite the national undertaking,” Hood said. “We’d bring back anything we found and put them in this warehouse.”
Hood said he’s never seen so many dangerous snakes in one time period than he did over those two weeks in wild Texas. As a strike team leader, Hood had to instruct his team on how to proceed around the often venomous reptiles.
“You name it, from wild hogs, bear traps, deer blinds, snakes – we ran into it in those 14 days,” Hood said.
The hardest part about the search and recovery process was being away from his family for that long, Hood recalled. With a 2-year-old and a newborn at home, Hood said his biggest comfort came from receiving letters and pictures from his wife in the mail.
“We didn’t have a lot of smartphones and FaceTime back then,” he said. “Getting mail back then with pictures – like actual pictures of my kids – sustained me.”
Eighteen years later, Hood said he’s thankful there weren’t any more shuttle disasters since the loss of Columbia.
“We hope what we found contributed to the safety of the shuttles after that,” he said.
For more than two years following the disaster, NASA suspended space shuttle flights as it investigated the cause of Columbia’s disintegration. NASA formed The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which later released several volumes of information on what went wrong for Columbia upon reentry.
The cause for the disaster actually occurred during takeoff, when a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and caused a hole in the spacecraft’s left wing. Upon reentry, this hole allowed atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle, leading to its tragic end.
Hood said it’s hard to imagine what the recovery process might have been like today amid the coronavirus pandemic. But with the world facing a global health crisis, Hood said he believes science is more important than ever.
“You have to look at priorities as far as what’s most important, and right now that’s tackling this pandemic – [but there’s] no doubt that space exploration is something that we need to continue to do,” Hood said.