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02-24-03: Coldwater native shaken by shuttle crash
Columbia debris falls
into his Texas yard

The Daily Standard

    Former Coldwater resident Michael Kunk and his wife, Francesca, arose early Feb. 1 at their Nacogdoches, Texas, home. It was to be a busy day with a basketball game at their daughters' school followed by a late lunch.
    Sunshine streamed through the windows, bathing rooms in a warm glow. No puffy white clouds scooted across the vivid blue sky. It had all the makings of a beautiful East Texas day - certainly not a day that would turn tragic as the clock ticked toward 8 a.m.
    The house began to shake violently, causing the walls to creak and the windows to rattle. The sickening vibration continued for more than a minute. It seemed like an eternity to the Kunks.
    Francesca Kunk immediately thought a plane bound for the nearby municipal airport was in trouble. Her husband attributed the shaking to an earthquake and quickly turned on the CNN cable channel to see what it registered on the Richter Scale. Instead he heard a newscaster reporting NASA had lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew.
    "I walked outside and there laying about 500 feet from my house was a piece of debris with more not far away," he said. "The violent shaking, the loud noise, the twisted and scorched pieces of metal - this was no simple loss of contact. The shuttle had broken up and rained down from the sky."
    Neighbors talked in hushed tones, recalling how sonic booms had heralded the shuttle's passage overhead during previous missions. It had been different this time - the quick buildup of noise, then the thunderous boom and finally the fading vibrations.
    "The sound came in reverse order," Michael Kunk explained. "It was an eerie sound, a sound I will never forget."
    He went back to get his wife, their two daughters and a digital camera. People moved from place to place, reverently looking at debris ranging from an inch or two in length to more than four feet. He got down on all fours at one point to crawl around a piece of scorched metal at the edge of the road.
    "You couldn't walk or drive more than 500 to a thousand feet without seeing a grim reminder," he said. "People in lawn chairs kept watch over pieces near their home. Others roped off sites or protected the debris with boxes or barrels."
    One area farmer called NASA to report shuttle debris had dropped into his pasture. No one showed up and after a number of hours he moved the pieces to a safer location away from the menacing hooves of his cattle.
    The Kunks found 15 small pieces near their home, including a six-inch section that creased the aluminum siding on a utility trailer as it fell. Some tiles were intact while others lay nearby. Law enforcement officers in the city of 31,000 didn't have to look far for help. Two hundred members of a Texas National Guard unit were at the Nacogdoches armory for weekend drills. Within hours the streets were clogged with traffic as military, NASA personnel, representatives of government agencies, more law enforcement officers, the media and the curious descended in droves on the otherwise quiet community.
    "It was hard enough to watch television coverage of the tragedy," Michael Kunk said. "But it was doubly and tripley hard to walk down the driveway and see pieces of the shuttle laying at your feet - the same ones that later showed up on the CNN Web site. It was sobering and heartbreaking because we knew seven lost souls were not going to be reunited with loved ones."
    And yet he feels God watched over the residents of the greater Nacogdoches area that day. Miraculously, no one was hit by debris raining from the sky. A friend flying a plane that morning witnessed pieces zinging by his window but none struck the craft. A piece crashed throug  the roof of a dentist office where the Kunks go. It landed on an office desk; thankfully no one was there at the time.
    Debris ended up on the airport runway, in the parking lot of Citizens Commercial Bank and around the property of Burns-Morris & Stewart, where he serves as chief financial officer. They included scorched sections of structural framework, torn metal with thick bolts still in place, a portion of the air filtration system, some kind of tank and a hatch equipped with a handle. Larger debris apparently traveled a greater distance, landing near Hemphill and San Augustine 400 to 500 miles away.
    Remains believed to be those of mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, an aerospace engineer and a native of India, were located four to five miles east of the Kunk home. Four to five miles to the west, searchers found the remains of one of the five male astronauts.
    "We're here in what is called the piney woods of East Texas," Michael Kunk said. "The woods are dense with trees and undergrowth."
     Columns of military, firefighters, law enforcement officers and volunteers continue to search the dense woods, setting off in columns four and five men wide. Perhaps the pieces they find will unlock the mystery of what happened to the shuttle. Each location is marked with the aid of a remote global positioning device. More than 5,500 sites have been located in the greater Nacogdoches area alone.
    Much of the debris has been placed into marked boxes and loaded onto trucks bound for Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where workers will try to put the shuttle together for investigative purposes. The project represents a mammoth jigsaw puzzle of sorts, with more than a million pieces ranging from pebbles to chunks the size of pickup trucks.
    The Kunks have walked through the wooded area on their 13-acre property repeatedly, scouring the ground covered with leaves and pine needles. They have found nothing as yet, but he braces himself for the day when the lawnmower blade makes contact with hidden metal.
    "I get a real strange feeling out there," he said. "I hope to find something and at the same time I pray to find nothing. There have been times I spotted something, and it turned out to be a McDonald's wrapper or another bit of trash from all the sightseers."
    The bank parking lot downtown remains an unofficial memorial of sorts, a place where people affected by the tragedy can leave flowers, flags and other tributes. Some 50 television satellite trucks initially parked a short distance away, with film crews stopping local residents to ask what they saw, heard or found.
    "I don't think Nacogdoches will ever be the same," he said with a sigh. "It was nicknamed Naca-nowhere long ago because most people never heard of the place. Let's face it, nobody ever heard of Lockerbie, Scotland, before the big plane crash put the town on the map."
    Like the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, people will never forget what they were doing when tragedy unfolded. Michael Kunk, who was 2 years old at the time, doesn't remember the shooting in Dallas. However, he recalls being at work as an accountant in Dayton when the Challenger blew up just minutes after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in 1990.
    "I called my dad (LaVern) about 8:30 a.m. Feb. 1 and told him Columbia and its crew had been lost," he said. "I had to tell someone and my dad was the first person who came to mind. I can still hear his voice as clear as if it all took place yesterday."
    The Kunks, who came home last week after his father's sudden death, returned to Texas yesterday hoping to find some degree of normalcy has returned to their community.
    "We're hoping March turns out to be a better month than February," he said. "Tragedy visited the nation as well as our family, claiming eight souls - seven astronauts and dad - in a matter of weeks."


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