On the first day of February 2003 tragedy fell from the skies across East Texas when the space shuttle Columbia came apart after its heat shield over its left wing failed due to damage suffered during the launch 16 days earlier.
A nation watched in stunned horror, as something that had become seemingly routine turned into a national tragedy. As the pieces rained down across East Texas and people began to realize the loss the nation and the world faced, the people in the small East Texas town of Hemphill jumped into action as the bulk of the shuttle’s debris showered Sabine County.
For the next 16 days, the people of Hemphill and Sabine County worked tirelessly, nearly around the clock, in the massive recovery effort to return the remains of the brave men and women aboard Columbia back to their families.
Thousands of recovery workers flooded the area and the people of Hemphill, out of their own pantries, fed 10,000 people three meals a day for 16 days. Those who could joined the recovery workers through the densely-forested terrain in the area.
Before the mission to space STS 107 Commander Rick Husband, a man of faith, read Joshua 1:6-9 to his crew, “Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them. Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.
“This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
“That verse played a role during the recovery effort,” explained Patricia Huffman Smith NASA Museum Director Belinda Gay, noting the pastor Fred Raney of First Baptist Church Hemphill read the verse to recovery workers every morning before they went back to work. That same pastor also held a memorial service every time any of the remains of one of the astronauts were found, at the request of the local funeral home director, who wanted to bring a final bit of dignity to the heroes of Columbia, as nearly all the remains of all seven astronauts were found in Sabine County. The people of Hemphill afforded the fallen heroes the honor they so rightly deserved.
A few years ago, the people of Hemphill wanted to honor the astronauts who lost their lives on Columbia. They wanted to tell the story of the history of nation’s first space shuttle; and of the amazing people of Hemphill who gave of themselves to help comfort a grieving nation.
“There are so many stories, little miracles from that time,” Mrs. Gay recalled, who along with her husband worked nearly around the clock in the recovery effort.
“We fed everybody at the VFW hall,” Mrs. Gay recalled. “There was no media there and it allowed the workers a chance to recover and deal with what they were having to do; we did it because we knew it had to be done.”
The local people gave so much, one woman who had hardly anything brought three apples to help feed the workers; one of our local ladies made 12 pies every day for the recovery workers; they gave of what they had to help during this time.
After 16 days the federal investigators took over the rest of the recovery, which allowed the people of Hemphill a chance to breathe, and to mourn the loss of life to such a tragedy.
These are some of the stories told at the museum, built with funds donated by Hemphill native All Smith, to honor his wife. The community came together once again to put the funds to good use. They also worked with NASA to tell the story of the astronauts and of Columbia. While NASA could not contribute money to the establishment of the museum, it donated countless items, displays and exhibits to help tell the story of the amazing men and women who worked to send Columbia up on its 28 missions, with the first beginning on April 12, 1981.
“NASA gave and helped us so much,” Mrs. Gay said. “We got to know the family of the fallen astronauts and they gave so much to the museum and supported us all the way.”
The museum opened on the eighth anniversary of the tragedy, and it continues to tell the story of Columbia and expand its exhibits. Visitors to the museum today can even try their hand at landing the shuttle as NASA donated a landing simulator to the museum. No trip to Hemphill would be complete without a stop by the museum.
Watch the 15-minute video of the history of Columbia and the role Hemphill played in easing the pain of the nation.
“When the shuttle went down it wasn’t long after 9/11,” Mrs. Gay recalled. “I recalled seeing the scenes on TV and all the tragedy. Those days after Columbia fell and seeing how the people here responded, it restored my faith in people and their giving heart.”
To learn more about the Patricia Huffman Smith NASA Museum, visit its website at www.nasacolumbiamuseum.com. The museum is located at 375 Sabine Street, Unit B in Hemphill.