By Jerome Tharaud
A week after the Bear Paw Hot Shots trainee crew from Rocky Boy was among 30 crews dispatched from Montana, North Dakota and Idaho to eastern Texas to recover pieces of the space shuttle Columbia, search crews are finding shuttle debris. Morale remains high despite having to struggle through muddy swamps made worse by heavy rains and leg-scratching briars, crew members and search officials said Wednesday.
"Everybody's doing great," Bear Paw Hot Shots trainee crew boss Dan Friede Jr. said from a base in Palestine, Texas, in a telephone interview Wednesday night. "Everyone is happy to be here, happy to be helping out NASA. Morale is really good," he said, despite near constant rain and occasional sleet and snow.
In addition to inclement weather, the 20-member crew from Rocky Boy has been fighting variable terrain, said Friede, 24. "You could be in clear fields one day and be in just the thickest brush you've ever been in the next. A lot of thorns," he said.
Other than blisters and cold symptoms, the crew has not had any health problems, he said.
Friede said the crew is finding debris from the shuttle every day but would not confirm the type of materials they were finding, or whether the crew had found human remains. The shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entering the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board.
The 35 crews in Palestine "are finding materials that NASA says are significant," NASA spokeswoman Mary Hicks said Wednesday night in a phone interview from Palestine, which is located about 100 miles west of the Louisiana border.
Crews are finding between 20 and 30 pieces of the shuttle a day, said Gail Thurston, a dispatch coordinator at the Great Falls Interagency Dispatch Center.
Thurston said she had received the figure from a fax sent Monday morning by Dick Schwecke, a Forest Service employee who is monitoring the crews.
Six firefighting crews from Montana were dispatched to east Texas by the Great Falls Interagency Dispatch Center last week, Thurston said. They consist of the Rocky Boy crew, a crew from Helena, two from the Forest Service near Great Falls, two from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and one from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, she said.
All of the crews arrived in Texas on Feb. 19, Thurston said, except for one of the Blackfeet crews, which arrived on Friday.
The crew from Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation is one of the 10 20-member crews from this region stationed in Palestine, Schwecke said Wednesday in a phone interview.
The remaining 20 crews are divided equally between two bases in Hemphill and Corsicana, Schwecke said. There are no crews from this region at the fourth base in Nacogdoches, he said. Schwecke is stationed in Hemphill, which is near the Louisiana border, about 150 miles from Palestine.
Thurston could not confirm which of the six crews dispatched from Great Falls last week were in Palestine, and which were in Hemphill. She said NASA "can move them around rather rapidly," from base to base depending on the weather. "They're finding things, and that helps boost morale," Schwecke said. "They're doing what they're here for," he said, but noted that "They've been getting a little more tired" when they come back to camp in the evenings.
On Wednesday morning it was raining near the Hemphill base. "The weather is just miserable," Schwecke said, adding that since crews began arriving Feb. 11, it had rained every day except for three or four sunny days earlier this week. "The ground is so saturated, it's just mud," he said.
Schwecke said the temperatures have been cool, and that it even snowed one night.
The crew members have been starting work at 6 a.m. and working 12- to 14-hour days, he said.
He said there have been no problems with insects or alligators as some had worried, but that briars with thick thorns are scratching the crew members' legs. "I don't think we've ever seen briars like we have down here," he said. "Their legs are paying the price."
Crews also have had problems with ticks on warm days and have seen wild boar tracks. Schwenke said he had heard the briars were thicker in the Hemphill area than around the other bases.
No health problems have been reported at Hemphill, Schwenke said.
Thurston said each crew has been performing a carefully coordinated grid search, in which linemen first use compasses to find and trace search areas, which are then marked by flagmen.
The crews in Palestine cover an average of 500 to 600 acres per day, Hicks said, although that varies with the weather.
Schwecke said the crew then gets into a straight-line search formation and walks through the marked area. Crews try to avoid breaking the lines, he said, so crew members often end up wading through creeks.
Although the crew members brought their own rain gear, they are not yet completely equipped to deal with the wet conditions, Schwecke said. "Carhartt pants and coats are really ideal things in the brush, but there are not enough to go around," he said. "We're slowly equipping them." He said that at Hemphill, each of the crew members have bought an extra pair of boots so one pair can dry while the other is being used.
Friede said his crew members had each been given an extra pair of Army pants and boots to help them cope with the rain. They come back wet every evening, he said. "Even if it's not raining, you're walking through the bushes knocking water on yourself. You're going to come out of there wet."
After each piece of the shuttle is discovered, it must be categorized as one of four different types of material. The first type, general material, is collected in bags by the crews themselves, and makes up "probably 99 percent of what's found," Thurston said.
The three other categories are: material significant to the investigation like black boxes and large structural pieces; crew-related material like human remains; and hazardous materials like stored energy and pyrotechnic devices.
When search crews find these materials, instead of collecting them, they mark the materials and notify the Environmental Protection Agency crews behind them, Thurston said.
Search crew members are not allowed to photograph what they find, and there are penalties and fines for keeping any shuttle pieces, she said.
The 936 crew members and search coordinators in Palestine have been living in tents pitched in a single warehouse with a concrete floor, Hicks said. The warehouse covers about four acres, she said.
Schwenke said the crews have had to fight boredom in the evenings. "That's the boring time," he said. "I think they try to get in line to use a telephone to call home."
Friede said there are six phones at the base available for crew members.
NASA has just installed a satellite dish at the base in Palestine to provide the crews with entertainment, and donated books and games are also available, Hicks said.
The crews are provided catered meals. "There are good meals at all those camps," Schwecke said.
"Food's great," Friede agreed.
The officials said they did not yet know how long the crews would stay in Texas. Thurston said the current crews could be kept in Texas for as long as 30 days from the day of their arrival.
Friede said that the most difficult part of the mission for his crew is being away from their families, but they would like to stay in Texas as long as possible. "The boys would like to stay as long as possible for the experience, along with the check," he said.
"It feels good helping out NASA knowing what kind of loss they went through," Friede added. "We feel for them, and they're appreciative, and that feels good too."