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They were 16 minutes from home

Search crews look for debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia after it crashed on February 1, 2003

Search crews look for debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia after it crashed on February 1, 2003

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Oklahoma -- Editor's Note: The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, with the loss of all seven crew members, shortly before it was scheduled to conclude its 28th mission, STS-107.

They were less than 16 minutes from home.

That's what the reports calculated, about the same time it takes me to drive to work. For seven shuttle crew members, that was as close as they would get.

That following Monday, my boss approved my leave on the condition I could get my necessary work done for the week. It was 7pm when I arrived home and told my wife my plans; she was not thrilled, but understood and helped me pack.

It was a humid, overcast day when I arrived in Hemphill on Tuesday. It sprinkled occasionally as it often does in southern Texas on these days, but that did not improve the situation at all; one could even argue the opposite. But something bigger was going on, and all these inconveniences really didn't matter in the whole scheme of things.

A large number of federal and state departments and volunteers crowded in a small school cafeteria that morning awaiting their assignments. Major significant pieces and components remained unfound; there were also bodies unaccounted for.

Our group totaled 40 members, two thirds being police officers, the rest "civilians". We were shipped out on donated school busses and split up into two groups of 20 along the banks of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, one of those high probability areas.

We formed up into two long lines along the road and began the first day through populated areas, with the occasional backyard pet our only delay. A loaded pickup truck brought us lunch around noon and we rested for about 30 minutes. Then off again, until about 4 pm.

The next day our route transitioned into heavily thickets with waist high bushes made mostly out of thorns. Three layers of clothing and makeshift cardboard shin-guards did not stop each and every thorn from reaching out and giving a Big Texas "Howdy!" That day sucked, but we cursed and pressed on. I located two small pieces of debris, including a clear plastic piece with written markings; probably from an onboard experiment.

After lunch, we only advanced about 50 yards when our lead told us to find a place to sit and take a break. A helicopter arrived nearby within minutes and a small NASA team dashed past us, toward the other half of our group which had progressed ahead of us by a few yards. It turned out to be the last remaining body, and we were told a chaplain delivered final rites before they moved him. The entire search effort was called off shortly after.

How often do we receive the opportunity to reach out and exceed our own expectations of ourselves as these brave astronauts did?  Too often we become involved in our own lives and the illusion that tomorrow always comes.

Today we see another type of heroism.   We are witness to those reaching beyond themselves while helping others in their time of greatest need.  We should all be proud of those brave men and women of our nation's military in their struggle to bring order to the chaos that is Haiti.   They represent the best of what America offers to the rest of the world and serve as a reminder of the greatness and fragility of human life.

They traveled nearly 6.6 million miles and were less than 16 minutes from home.