Time has a way of sneaking up on you. As parents, you see this most of all with your children. “How could she be a teenager? I just picked her up from preschool.”
The same holds true on notable dates and somber anniversaries. We remember where we were and what we were doing when the news – like a thunderbolt – struck us. When one of those notable anniversary dates comes up on us, we often remark: “It can’t be that long ago.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve looked at the calendar a lot, and it truly doesn’t seem that long ago in terms of the accident that brought down the Space Shuttle Columbia and claimed her seven-person crew. In truth, the world is a vastly different place from what it was on that heartbreaking February morning.
Back then America was preparing to launch its second war – this one in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and pursue his weapons of mass destruction. The international manhunt for Osama Bin Laden was under way while he was on the run somewhere. Barack Obama was then a little-known state senator in Illinois and the horrors and pain of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack were still very, very raw. We also had just entered into a new era in America life, where the term, “homeland security” was starting to be used and a new Cabinet department was just beginning to open its doors and bring together the federal components that would work to make us all a lot safer.
There is little dispute that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in response to the 9/11 attacks but few people realize that the first major event that the department had to deal with had nothing to do with terrorism. It was in fact the Columbia accident. Then-Secretary Tom Ridge had been in office barely a week (he was sworn in on Jan. 24, 2003), when he got word early Saturday morning, Feb. 1, from advisers, news reports and then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe about debris falling from the skies over Texas and Louisiana.
The shuttle Columbia, making its de-orbiting approach from a nearly flawless two-week science mission had disintegrated during its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing the crew. It would be the second shuttle orbiter and crew to be lost during a mission – Challenger being the first when it exploded 73 seconds after launch from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Jan. 28, 1986.
It’s amazing how many things have changed since that February morning of 10 years ago. Iraq is no longer the headline it once was. The successful manhunt for Osama Bin Laden has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film, while what’s left of him is at the bottom of the sea. The once little-known state senator from Illinois is now starting a second term in the White House, and the space shuttles no longer fly – they are now museum relics scattered across the country with a new mission to inspire a new generation of explorers.
There are many unique stories about the Columbia accident and the ensuing response and recovery efforts. At the outset of the accident, many persons thought that less than 10 percent of the spacecraft would be recovered, given that pieces fell into a number of dense and rural areas in east Texas and the upper half of Louisiana. Thanks to the efforts of citizens in those areas, countless volunteers, and first responders, as well as FEMA, the National Guard, the U.S. Fire Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and many others, between 38 and 40 percent of Columbia was recovered. With pieces ranging from the size of a refrigerator to smaller than a postage stamp, what would ultimately be learned from the accident would have far-reaching consequences for NASA and American spaceflight, but also for the newest Cabinet department.
In an interview with Tom Ridge, the first secretary of DHS reflects upon that day and what it taught him about the nation in unforeseen circumstances.
Rich Cooper: When you were sworn in as DHS secretary, did you ever think the first event that occurred on DHS’ watch would be a non-terrorism incident?
Secretary Tom Ridge: Well, what is even more interesting than that, and I’m going to put a much finer point on it: Technically, DHS didn’t open until a month later.
We opened the door March 1st, but I had already been sworn in as secretary [a week before]. So, you know, like the man without a country – I was the man without an agency.
As I recall this incident [the Columbia accident], even though the agency wasn’t stood up – what I had envisioned, and what my team had envisioned was necessary for us to be successful long term within the agency, we kind of tested the concept.
Even under the tragedy associated with [the accident] … it was a lesson that said how Homeland Security was supposed to work. You’ve heard me say it a thousand times, “Homeland Security was a federal agency, the department was a federal agency, but everybody had a role to play in the country. It was a national mission, but everybody had a role to play.”
What role, if any, did you and your early homeland security team play in supporting the Columbia mission prior to the accident?
If you remember, there was an Israeli astronaut [on board].
[A member of my staff] Mike Byrne was in the Office of Homeland Security at the White House and he headed up the Emergency Preparedness Shop. I had also a CIA agent working for me, Richie Irwin.
Well, both Richie and Mike, and a couple of others, had been down [to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center] pre-launch and had helped coordinate [security] activities. We treated it as a National Special Security Event [NSSE].
We had multiple agencies involved. Essentially oversight preparation during the launch. I mean DoD had air cover, you had Coast Guard offshore. You had Customs for a couple days prior [to launch] using their helicopters along the shore.
There were some interesting things going on, but we had actually sent people from the Office of Homeland Security, and the lead guys were Mike Byrne and Richie Irwin, down there to work with some security measures. Not because we had any threat information. There wasn’t any, but it just was the right thing to do.
How did you learn about the Columbia accident?
A phone call from Richie Irwin.
To a certain extent, I used to kid him. He was like my 911. He was one of the couple of people whose real mission was if something was going down or something happening or something I needed to be aware of – I get a call from Richie Irwin, who frankly was on holiday at the time.
When the accident unfolded that Saturday morning, and obviously with the Israeli astronaut on board and with the threats that are always made against Israel, did you think it was an act of terrorism that may have brought the orbiter down?
Once you get over the shock of the horrible tragedy, you’re reminded of how perilous an occupation it is and how perilous a space mission is. It is my recollection that there had been no warnings about or threat information conveyed to us that it was a potential target.
Everything had gone as planned during the course of the mission. There had been no reports of difficulty upon re-entry. Everybody knew that the most critical period is the re-entry phase and there was no reason for us to think that it had been a terrorist attack.
Shortly thereafter, the incident was reported publicly, I think Sean [O’Keefe – the then-NASA administrator] may have gone on [television] or somebody may have gone to the public and said there was absolutely no reason for us to believe that there had been a terrorist attack. As I said before, there had been no threats made against it.
What kind of support did NASA request of you, if any?
Right after it happened, there were a couple of conversations with NASA. I don’t recall the specific request, but the joint decision was made that NASA put out a warning. I can remember almost hearing it on television after the tragedy was announced – we knew there was going to be a lot of debris. There was a public announcement that NASA made: don’t go near it. Don’t touch it. If you’ve identified it, give us the location.
And then I think there was a joint decision made that we make FEMA the agency to coordinate the on-the-ground efforts to recover the debris. It was through FEMA that they began to coordinate with primarily state agencies. I think the National Guards in the respective states. Probably the Texas Rangers in Texas.
Remember, initially we thought the debris field was in Texas to Louisiana. We found out later they were picking up some debris in New Mexico and Arizona. So, I think the only specific request of the office was to have FEMA coordinate the recovery of the debris, which they did, and they did an amazing job.
The initial estimates on debris recovery were that NASA would get less than 10 percent of the orbiter Columbia back. They ended up getting nearly 40 percent.
Yeah, they did … and frankly, with the help of not only the federal agencies and state agencies, but … a lot people on the ground [helping too].
I mean in the midst of that tragedy, they [local citizens] knew what the federal government was trying to do and I think we got a lot of information and a lot of the debris was identified by citizens who wanted to help.
That’s…that’s the paradigm. I mean you don’t want to go too far to the extreme to say, but, you know when the vendor in New York City sees an event – remember the smoking vehicle in Times Square?
You always ask for people to be aware … situationally aware.
Prior to the Columbia accident, had anyone every broached the subject with you about debris falling from space?
It’s the most unlikely event for a secretary or department to deal with. I mean this as an aside, but every once in a while, we get the report that there may be an asteroid passing by, or some space debris may be falling toward the Earth but no [it was] never mentioned.
Since it was the first major event that occurred on your watch as secretary, how did the Columbia accident change how you looked at your job, if at all?
The tragedy didn’t change in any way how I looked at the job or the rules and responsibilities of the department. To a certain extent, it just confirmed, although it was around a tragedy, what I had always believed was the primary responsibility of the department.
To a certain extent, it validated and reassured me that the integration of the use of federal agencies across the board and state and local agencies and citizens was the best way for the country to layer safety and security throughout.
I mean, it was clear that [the Department of] Homeland Security could never possibly provide the [absolute] level of safety and security in and of itself. But it could serve as a catalyst and a focal point to coordinate the activity among the federal agencies.
But even more importantly, the collaborative work … communicate and collaborate and work with the states and the locals. And in this instance, individual citizens.
So to a certain extent, it validated in my own mind how the agency should work and the relationship we should build with other federal agencies on a horizontal line, but also the critical importance of working with our partners at the state and local level.
Everybody in Homeland Security has a role to play.
We ask people to be alert, be aware. But the classic example, even amidst this tragedy, is how important it is to have citizen engagement, how important it is to build relationships with state and locals and give citizens an assignment when they’re called upon to do something, because [in this case] everybody responded.
Like I said, it validated in my own mind, and frankly I wasn’t surprised, because I think America always responds in times of crisis, but [it stresses] the importance of getting everybody involved.
I’ve said it before, and you heard it a thousand times – “You can’t secure the country from inside the Beltway. Not a chance.”
This just validated the many dimensions of making America more secure, and that’s getting everybody involved – and ironically we did this even before the department was opened technically.
What was the biggest lesson learned of that day for you, other than the validation for what your approach was?
Well, there are a couple. When the president had called me and asked me to serve, we really didn’t have a job description, but he said, if something … if a tragedy occurs in this country again, I need to be able to turn to someone, one individual and ask “Why?” And then figure out what transpired to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But he really wanted a focal point.
I remember after I hung up with Richie Irwin, and by then Sean O’Keefe had been in contact with the White House … it was the need to get information – actionable information out as quickly as possible, which we did.
I mean Irwin talked to NASA – he called me and then began to put other forces in action to respond and recover.
And again, it’s just that you need that intelligence, actionable information – you need to act upon immediately. It was a dramatic reminder of that simple fact. Sometimes you gotta move quickly and fortunately, we did.
But it was again, a reminder of what I saw on September 11. When everybody rushed to the scene and to Shanksville [in Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed] to help. It wasn’t even a modest debris field but, I mean, the natural impulse of Americans and the first responders is to help.
That was a natural impulse of people in Louisiana and Texas and everywhere. They’re there to help.
So, it was just a reminder of the spirit and commitment of Americans when called upon to respond and also a reminder of how important it is to get critical information to the decision-makers as fast as possible.