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Remembering Space Shuttle Columbia on 15th anniversary of explosion

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HEMPHILL, Texas – Fifteen years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia’s flight back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was cut short in the sky over Texas.  

No one knew the orbiter had a giant hole in her wing. She broke up as she reentered the earth’s atmosphere over north Texas. Columbia and her crew ended their journey in far east Texas.

"The building started rattling and we didn’t know what was happening," said a resident of Sabine County on a video playing in the Remembering Columbia Museum in Hemphill in east Texas.  

The museum tells the story of a space ship, its crew and how east Texas instantly embraced Space Shuttle Columbia.

"I heard the sound and I came outside and I looked up and I was like, 'Oh wow.' I started calling around and found out that everyone was going to the VFW and that’s where we all went and gathering and that’s where we put in time after that," Museum Board Member Pat Smith said.

The museum describes how this town of about 1,200 went to work searching for debris, feeding and housing thousands of out-of-town searchers and protecting the remains of the crew.  

PHOTOS: Inside the Remembering Columbia Museum

In the museum, they remember each of the seven astronauts, as well as two men who died in a helicopter crash during the search.  

Display cases commemorate the life of each of the nine lives lost. They include personal belongings, military medals and awards and personal notes. 

"When they come, I hope they take away their legacy. The legacy of Columbia that she left behind. The legacy of the crew and the crew that went before them. The space program is a very important part of who our country is," Museum Curator Belinda Gay said.

People in this community are proud that the remains of all seven astronauts were recovered in Sabine County and returned to their families.  

"We definitely believe it was meant to be," Gay said.

The people of Sabine County opened their hearts and their homes.  On the 15th anniversary, the museum shares an intimate story about a shuttle, its crew and the community that rescued them.

"It just became dear to my heart to save this memory. And what they did for us," Smith said.

This story comes courtesy our sister station in Houston, KPRC.