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Sat, Mar 29, 2003

Chopper Search For Shuttle Debris Halted After Fatal Crash

Two Dead In Texas

The skies were eerily quiet in East Texas late Friday, after all helicopters involved in the search for Columbia debris were grounded. A US Forest Service chopper looking for pieces of the lost shuttle apparently lost power to the rotors and crashed in the Angelina National Forest, killing two men aboard the aircraft and injuring three others.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent an investigator to the remote site accessible only over muddy, rut-filled stretches of trail about 35 miles east of Lufkin. All-terrain vehicles were brought in to assist crews trying to clear a road into the forest.

Power Failure?

"Reports were that it lost power to the rotors," said FAA spokesman John Clabes.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said Friday two witnesses told officials the helicopter's "engine just stopped" and it "took a nose dive" about 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

Charles Krenek, 48, an aviation specialist with the Texas Forest Service, was seated next Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters' pilot, Jules F. "Buzz" Mier, Jr., whose Arizona employer had been hired by the Forest Service to help in the search. Both men were killed.

Three others seated behind them in the Bell 407 helicopter survived but remained hospitalized Friday at Memorial Medical Center of East Texas in Lufkin, about 125 miles northeast of Houston.

Two workers based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Ronnie Dale and Richard Lange, were in fair condition. Dale had a punctured lung and Lange shoulder and hip injuries, O'Keefe said.

Matt Tschacher of the U.S. Forest Service in South Dakota was in stable condition, said a spokeswoman at the hospital. O'Keefe said Tschacher suffered a spinal injury.

Pilot Died "Doing What He Loved"

Papillon chief pilot Chuck Rush said Mier, 56, who spent a decade teaching flight instrumentation after serving as an Army pilot in Vietnam, was "doing what he loved to do."

"He was an extremely precise individual," Rush said. "He used to be an accountant. When you asked him a question, he would say, 'Let me get back to you on that,' and then he would get back to you with this huge mound of graphs and charts."

The challenge of finding shuttle debris by spending hours at a time in the air searching a 2-mile grid along lines marked 30 feet apart attracted Mier to the effort, Rush said. "He loved variety. He didn't like being stuck doing the same thing time and time again. It was kind of a unique mission," Rush said. "It was very precise, demanding flying."

To try to find debris, helicopter pilots fly just above the tree tops, Rush said. "It's pretty dangerous ... if you have a problem," he said. "It doesn't give you much time to react. That was probably something that led to their demise."

Krenek, of Lufkin, had been assisting in the search since Columbia broke apart over Texas Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Charlotte Krenek said her husband of 28 years also loved what he'd been doing the past seven weeks.

"He found several pieces," she said. "He found a piece of a helmet and that excited him. He was very diligent and passionate about his work."

Krenek had worked with the Texas Forest Service for 25 years, joining the agency in Houston after witnessing a fire in his grandmother's neighborhood. "He just felt like God wanted him to help with fires," she said. "He gave it his all. He was just a fine Christian man. He loved his family."

Ground searches for Columbia debris resumed Friday after crews observed a moment of silence. More than 140, 20-person search teams are involved. So far, more than 42,000 pieces of shuttle debris have been recovered by 10,000 searchers in 16 Texas counties.

Earlier this week, 28 helicopters and eight fixed wing aircraft were involved in the air search, said Gay Ippolito of the U.S. Forest Service. "This is a devastating loss for all of us and it is on the minds of everyone working in the recovery effort," she said.
 
IDENTIFICATION
  Regis#: 175PA        Make/Model: B407      Description:
  Date: 03/27/2003     Time: 226

  Event Type: Accident   Highest Injury: Fatal     Mid Air: N    Missing: N
  Damage: Substantial

LOCATION
  City: LUFKIN   State: TX   Country: US

DESCRIPTION
ACFT CRASHED UNDER UNKNOWN CIRCUMSTANCES, WHILE PERFORMING LOW LEVEL  FLIGHTS FOR COLUMBIA SHUTTLE RECOVERY. THE TWO POB SUFFERED FATAL
INJURIES. LUFKIN, TX

INJURY DATA      Total Fatal:   2
                 # Crew:   2     Fat:   2     Ser:   0     Min:   0     Unk:
                 # Pass:    3     Fat:   0     Ser:   1     Min:   2     Unk:
                 # Grnd:          Fat:   0     Ser:   0     Min:   0     Unk:

WEATHER: METAR KLFK 272253Z AUTO 19012G19KT 10SM CLR 24/12 A2966

OTHER DATA
  Activity: Other      Phase: Cruise      Operation: Public

  Departed: LUFKIN, TX                  Dep Date:    Dep. Time:
  Destination: SILVER CITY, NM          Flt Plan:              Wx Briefing:
  Last Radio Cont: NONE
  Last Clearance:
  FAA FSDO: HOUSTON, TX  (SW09)                   Entry date: 03/28/2003

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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