SAN ANTONIO – Twenty years ago, NASA’s Columbia space shuttle crashed to the Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board and sending debris scattered across 200 miles. San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood was deployed to search for that crucial debris.
“It’s just a time to reflect. It’s a time to look at the work that we did as far as finding those black boxes so the space program could move on,” Hood said.
Hood was working in Phoenix at the time and was deployed two days after the disaster to lead an elite search team through dangerous terrain on the Texas-Louisiana border, looking for shuttle debris.
“I had a team of about 60 that were wildland firefighters that they had brought in,” Hood said.
The cockpit and the boxes were somewhere in Hemphill, Texas, around and in the Sabine National Forest.
“We were cautioned when we got there of snakes, of hogs, of meth labs, of clandestine pot farms, of hunters, big mounds of fire ants, all kinds of bugs. So we were in a very dangerous environment,” Hood said.
They stood shoulder to shoulder for two weeks, wading through the dense forest and swampland for 10 to 12 hours a day. They slept on wood pallets raised from the wet ground.
“We did not have the technology back then of drones. We had helicopters, but we would actually have to go walk and see if there’s a broken branch or something that would indicate something fell,” Hood said.
There were about 1,000 people on site working toward the same goal.
“We had some members from the military there in case of any explosive devices. We had two NASA engineers assigned to each group because we were finding things. They determined what they were,” Hood said.
He said the sacrifice was worth it.
“Were able to locate the landing gear. There were pieces of clothing. There were engine components. We came upon one of the places where one of the astronauts perished, and there was like a little makeshift memorial,” Hood said.
Morale was rough at times, so it was important for the crews to see the bigger picture.
“Every evening, we would open up the warehouse area for tours so the search teams could see the progress because everybody shared in that success. If anything was found, it was a big deal for all of us,” Hood said.
Another motivation came from NASA astronauts themselves.
“It was just austere conditions, so we’d have astronauts come in the evenings, and they would give motivational talks. If you found things as a team, they would give you shuttle pins or NASA pins. And so there was motivation,” Hood said.
Hood still cherishes those pins and a special NASA patch 20 years later, keeping them framed on the wall behind his desk.
He knows he was a part of history that made space travel safer.
“You wouldn’t see the things that have happened now that has helped all of mankind through being able to travel into space. I was honored to go, and I’m even more honored now,” Hood said.