Texas A&M Forest Service employees, retirees recall Columbia recovery mission


Bill Oates was renovating his Nacogdoches home when he thought the rumbling he heard was coming from his daughter running around the house.

John Gill was working a weekend job on a logging crew in East Texas when his boss asked if he had seen anything falling from the sky.

Jake Donellan believed the boom he heard was a vehicle crash at an intersection near his Marshall home.

Marilynn Grossman was driving through College Station when she saw a streak cross the horizon, “like a shooting star, but out of place for that time of day.”

What they had all heard was the space shuttle Columbia disintegrating over Texas as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.

There were no survivors among the seven astronauts on the NASA STS-107 shuttle, which was returning from a 16-day mission. The shuttle’s explosion sparked a massive ground search in an effort to recover the astronauts’ remains and shuttle debris that was scattered across heavily forested areas over multiple counties. Texas A&M Forest Service served as a lead state agency in the recovery mission, managing exhaustive ground searches throughout the East Texas debris field.

Memorial dedication

On Feb. 1, the 20th anniversary of the Columbia disaster, Texas A&M Forest Service, along with NASA, the U.S. Forest Service and the city of Nacogdoches, will rededicate the seven trees planted in 2003 in memory of the shuttle crew members.

The event in Banita Creek Park will include the unveiling of an informational marker and the dedication of two newly planted trees. The new trees will honor Charles Krenek and Jules “Buzz” Mier Jr., who died in a helicopter crash during the search for shuttle debris.

Mier, a U.S. Army veteran, was a pilot under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Krenek, a Texas A&M Forest Service aviation specialist, was serving as a search manager. Krenek was well-liked and during his over 26-year career with the agency had earned a reputation for his commitment to serving others.

“He was truly a good man,” said Oates, who worked with Krenek and is now Texas A&M Forest Service associate director. “His death hit me as hard as any other death that I’ve experienced because of the type of person he was. I think about him frequently.”

Like a family

Texas A&M Forest Service employees and retired staff members who played a role in the 2003 search for Columbia and her crew describe the experience as meaningful. Many noted the spirit of cooperation, the bonds with other responders and the important role their training played in preparing them for the challenges of the task.

Oates, who worked in a planning role from a command post in Lufkin during the search for Columbia’s debris, said watching the community come together alongside multiple federal, state and local agencies was inspiring.

“I’ve never been involved with anything like that before,” he said. “People worked really hard to help the nation and figure out how to start the healing process. It was very gratifying to be involved in something like that.”

James Hull, who served as agency director from 1996 to 2008, said the relationships among responders and NASA officials seemed natural.

“I’ve always looked at the Forest Service as a well-organized family. We respect each other and work well together,” Hull said. “And we discovered the same thing with NASA. They have that same close-knit bond between their employees, and as it developed, it felt more like family helping family than a working relationship.”

Tom Boggus, who retired as Texas A&M Forest Service director in 2021 and was serving as associate director and deputy state forester in 2003, also recalled the feeling of being connected to a larger family.

“One thing that struck me was the community of the astronauts, how close they are and the relationships that they have,” Boggus said. “It was a really strong, close-knit group of folks, and we got to be part of that. We got adopted into the NASA family.”

While some personality clashes might be expected amid the stress and chaos of such an emergency, Oates said, the overall experience was one of solidarity and cooperation.