The Coast Guard’s ongoing help of the Columbia
Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 9, 2003
This past weekend our nation was rocked by the horrible events surrounding the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It was an event that will probably stick with each of us for the rest of our lives. I can still remember today, like it was yesterday when the Challenger was lost during throttle up.
I was in the training room on the barge that supported the new construction crew of the Pre-Commissioning Crew for the USS NEVADA.
The loss of the Columbia and her seven gallant crew members are cause for reflection and national mourning. Events like this also provide our nation an opportunity to look back on all the brave souls that ventured &uot;beyond&uot; making are country what it is today. We are a nation of explorers and the shuttle crew embodied everything that is good about America. Like the crew of Apollo 1 and the Challenger, the crew of Columbia will never be forgotten.
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Thousands of Coast Guard personnel were tracking events as they were unfolding and coordination calls were being made to NASA and other agencies. Throughout the event and the follow-on response our Atlantic Area Command Center, located in Portsmouth was sending a continuous stream of information via text page messages.
Since the Columbia tragedy the Coast Guard has been alerting mariners along the Gulf coast from Tampa, Fla., to Galveston, Texas, to be on alert and report any sightings of debris which may have come from the space shuttle. These Urgent Marine Information Broadcast (UMIB), which was immediately transmitted to mariners via marine radio channel 16 (VHF-FM) was as follows:
&uot;THE SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA REPORTEDLY BROKE UP UPON RE-ENTRY OVER TEXAS SATURDAY MORNING. MARI-NERS BETWEEN TAMPA, FLORIDA AND GALVESTON, TEXAS ARE URGED TO KEY A SHARP LOOKOUT AND REPORT ANY SIGHTINGS OF POSSIBLE DEBRIS TO THE U.S. COAST GUARD. IF DEBRIS IS LOCATED, DO NOT TOUCH IT AS IT MAY CONTAIN HAZARDOUS MATERIALS.&uot;
Coast Guard involvement in responding to the event was quick. An HH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station New Orleans was launched to work with the Air Force in searching for debris. A second Coast Guard helicopter, from Air Station Houston transported two NASA officials from Houston to Palestine, Texas to investigate reported debris there.
Since the initial involvement more Coast Guard assets have become involved. Two of our service’s Strike Teams, one from the east coast the other from the gulf coast, were brought in to help with debris recovery. Coast Guard Strikes teams, there are three in all, are one of the most highly trained resources and have exceptional skills in handling hazardous material. For example, the Atlantic Strike Team, located out of Fort Dix, N.J. was deeply involved in the clean-up of the Senate Office building following the anthrax laced mail incident.
In addition, the Coast Guard is working to find shuttle debris within the Toledo Bend Reservoir, located in Hemphill Texas. Thirty-three Coast Guard personnel are working on this project with their state counterparts.
Coast Guard Operations with the shuttle program have been ongoing since the first launch in 1981. Our service’s support has come from Active and Reserve members and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Coordination is detailed and often shuttle support is conducted on bright, hot, sunny days. Fatigue and dehydration are safety concerns for the Coast Guard crews supporting these events.
At the same time the No-Fly Zone is in effect military fighter jets and helicopter gunships are the air during the countdown. On the water the U.S Coast Guard clears a very large security zone off Cape Canaveral. This Security Zone is designed to keep the water area near the shuttle’s launch pad free of vessels. The entire security program for the shuttle falls under the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space, which has maintained an incredible working relationship with the Coast Guard.
This has been a tough week for America. But we are a nation that has always overcome adversity. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia was felt nation-wide. But, like so many things in our nation’s proud history, we will learn from this difficult period, adapt and continue our quest – in this case for the stars.
The brave astronauts who crewed Columbia are nation heroes…they will always have an important place in our national fabric. They will never be forgotten.
Until next week: Boat safe… and boat smart!
LCDR Joe DiRenzo III is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist.