Bringing home America’s astronauts: The 20-year tragic anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia

by Harold Schapelhouman on February 1, 2023

In respectful memory of Colonel Rick Husband, Commander William McCool, LT Colonel Michael Anderson, Doctor Kalpana Chawla, Captain David Brown, Doctor Laurel Salton Clark and Colonel Ilan Ramon (IDF).

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the Columbia Shuttle Disaster. A period of time that almost equals its service life that started it all in a glorious launch in April of 1981. I had just completed my background check with the Fire District and was notified that I would be hired in June as a Firefighter that same year.

All things seemed possible back then. In retrospect it’s still hard to fathom that I would help lead a very specialized effort and capability specifically to find and respectfully recover the seven astronauts of Columbia two decades later.

From February 5 to May 6, 2003, 25,000 people were involved with the search efforts to find all of Shuttle Columbia with a debris footprint that was 645 miles long. They located 84,900 individual pieces of the shuttle transported as part of 27 truck loads taken to Kennedy Space Center, ultimately equaling 38% of the craft.

The National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Response System, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had established itself as a competent local, state and Federal asset since it’s creation in 1991.

Twenty eight Task Forces existed nationwide, with eight in California and two here in the Bay Area. California Task Force 3 (CA-TF3), based in Menlo Park and sponsored by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District was one of those specialized teams (pictured).

Working in conjunction will the Governors Office of Emergency Services (Cal-OES), Task Force 3 deployed six specialized Human Remains Recovery K9 Teams, one veterinarian, a Logistics Specialist, and myself as part of the FEMA Incident Support Team (IST). I served as a Rescue Specialist on the “Blue” Team, a 20 member overhead management team specifically used to interface with local jurisdictions, first responders, and other state and Federal assets. There are three of these FEMA teams, know as the Red, White and Blue.

My background and real world experiences in dynamic and catastrophic events like the Oklahoma City Bombing and World Trade Center Collapses would be very helpful in search and recovery methodology and practice, but ironically, it was my time spent searching large areas of Northern California during the floods of 1997 that would help the most in terms of prioritization, tracking, and time and condition challenges.

With a reported 100-mile long by one-mile wide search area in primarily rural areas that also included lakes and swamp area, isolating where we needed to be  — and not be — would be a key factor to our success because time, weather conditions, and exhausting specialized K9 resources, were not going to be on our side.

Over the next 14 days, we constantly updated and revised our methods and objectives working with the FBI. Mass collection of any type of remains — animal or human — was eventually confirmed by forensic pathologists and those data sets were then verified and confirmed by the coroners office.

I was assigned to a field Command Post in San Augustine County as a Division Group Supervisor in charge of half of the almost 40 Specialized K9 Teams that had been assembled from Texas and across the Country. My counter part, Mike Brown with Virginia Task Force 2 was assigned as the Division Group Supervisor for the adjoining Sabine County and took the other half of the K9 Search Teams.

Mike and I strategized a lot on methodology, execution and practice.  We knew that with “vectors” out in the wild — that humans and dogs would tire out and certainly be less effective in weather where human scent is diminished — so we needed to identify priority search areas as quickly as we could.

That break presented itself in the form of a Global Information Unit assigned to our Command Post, the help of Texas Task Force 1’s Doctor Minson, who helped create an anatomical body part system that we then matched to hundreds of coroner data finds that also included GPS coordinates and all authorized by our FBI Leader Glenn Martin.

In short, that process allowed us to essentially create seven priority radiuses, where we believed all human recovery efforts should be focused, rather than the much larger corridor model, which we had been initially presented with.

That isn’t to say that the corridor model wasn’t appropriate for the recovery of the shuttle parts, which came with its own hazards and challenges. But our methodology worked to the point where NASA and its Astronaut Core were so satisfied that this portion of the effort was complete, that they congratulated the Team for their work efforts well ahead of how long they had anticipated this effort would take.

While we could not change the outcome, we could be comforted that we had helped return the Astronaut’s to their families.

Harold Schapelhouman in the Retired Fire Chief of Menlo Park Fire Protection District and founding member of the local, state and Federal Urban Search and Rescue Response System under FEMA

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