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Gary Younge
Tragedy unfolds in a grim mosaic of debris

A thunderclap in Fort Worth, a tornado in Palestine, a hailstorm in Nacogdoches.

Across a broad swath of north-east Texas they were convinced they had woken up to some kind of natural disaster on Saturday morning. As roofs shook, windows rattled and dogs howled, many put the noise down to a sudden freak change in the weather. Others feared worse. Some went back to sleep, some turned on the television, others called the police.

So only gradually, as sombre television newscasters spoke, friends called and music stations became radio call-ins, did it become apparent that a tragedy had taken place right above their heads.

By midday everyone knew the extended boom they had felt and heard was the sound of the space shuttle Columbia breaking up at 12,500 miles an hour, nearly 40 miles above the earth with such intensity that it showered them with debris that was scattered over three different states.

By the evening, church signs beside the motorway on the four-hour drive from Dallas Fort Worth to Nacogdoches promising that "God will deliver" alternated with requests from the police for people to report shuttle debris.

For the rest of the day a grim mosaic of shards from the spacecraft and even body parts of crew members were discovered strewn over small lumber and farming towns, a path 100 miles long and 10 miles wide where the deep south meets the mild west.

A charred torso, thigh bone and skull near Hemphill, parts of a space suit a few hundred yards away, a piece of a helmet in the county of St Augustine, an exhaust cone near Palestine.

Two boys found a charred human leg. The Dallas Morning News reported their father, Bob White, saying: "From the hip to the foot, it's all there, scorched from the fire."

One piece of wreckage oozed yellow gas over a bed of pine needles outside a church, another was still smoking hours after it had first been sighted.

At least 800 reports of fragments, ranging in size from a pebble to a metre long, were reported in Nacogdoches county alone. One piece went through the roof and ceiling of an optometrist's office in town. When his wife walked in, "the piece of debris was on the front desk and there was a hole in the ceiling", said Don Rudasill.

Another large, jagged chunk, which fell in the car park behind a bank in the centre of Nacogdoches, was cordoned off by red tape and protected by the police and national guard. Still, it drew flowers from wellwishers and onlookers bearing camcorders while providing a grim backdrop for many local news channels.

Michael Moore, who lives in Nacogdoches, called his girlfriend after he heard the "loud rumble". She had a small piece in her front garden four or five inches long that he said looked like part of a cylinder. In the back garden lay another, slightly larger piece that he thought had come off the side. "I didn't touch it. We called the police and the national guard are still there at the house waiting for someone to pick it up," he said.

Elsewhere some had not been so obliging. Some people had tried to stop the authorities from examining debris that had fallen on their land.

"We have had reports that they didn't want to allow us on to their property because they wanted to preserve the debris for themselves," said the Nacogdoches county sheriff, Thomas Kerss.

Police warned residents not to touch pieces they found because they could be dangerous and that anyone keeping them could be prosecuted for withholding federal property.

By last night almost 50 people had been examined or decontaminated by medical units after touching the debris.

John Hughes, 34, was alerted to a giant ball a metre wide coming down by his uncle's cry of "Oh my God".

"I was telling everyone, you know we really shouldn't be touching it, but I just couldn't stand it," he said. "Like curiosity killed the cat. It wasn't hot, there were no heat shimmers, we put our hand above it and then we touched it and there was nothing. We kicked it a little bit; the thing doesn't weigh as much as four gallons of milk.

"At first I was saying this is probably the coolest thing I have ever seen. Then we found out what it was and it was like, this isn't the coolest thing I have seen any more. "It's too sad."

Phillip Russell, 17, said: "Everybody's treating this like it's an alien crash."

Within three hours of the explosion the internet auction house Ebay was offering debris from east Texas. One item received 26 bids and was fetching a price of $21,474,836.47 before the site pulled it.

But the mixture of shock and destruction made many assume it was the work of terrorists. "I sort of hunkered down because I thought we were under attack," said Margie McCoy from Palestine.

In a country which lives in fear of another attack and remains unsure how or when it will come, the news took them back to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Washington. "After September 11, with anything unusual like this, I immediately think we're being attacked," one man told the Dallas Morning News. "I feel much more anxiety about things like this, if only because they occur in a post-September 11 context."

At the cow-town coliseum in Fort Worth's stockyards on Saturday night, men clutching rope in their mouths and swirling lassos over their heads caught and bound calves from a standing start in less than nine seconds.

It was time to celebrate and cherish what was "noble in the American spirit", said the compere. He paid tribute to the victims of the shuttle and September 11 and wished the soldiers well in Iraq all in one breathe to resounding applause.

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