Charred human remains have been found among the debris from the stricken space shuttle Columbia.
The debris plummeted from the sky over hundreds of square miles of Texas and Louisiana, smashing a rooftop and splashing into a reservoir.
In Hemphill, near the Louisiana state line, hospital employee Mike Gibbs reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near what was believed to be other debris.
Billy Smith, an emergency coordinator for three East Texas counties, confirmed the find.
“I wouldn’t want anybody seeing what I saw,” Gibbs said. ”It was pretty gruesome.”
On a farm not far away, two young boys found a charred human leg, The Dallas Morning News reported today. “From the hip to the foot, it’s all there, scorched from the fire,” said their father, Bob White.
Across the city of Nacogdoches and the surrounding region of pine forest, residents found chunks of debris. A small tank rested on a runway. A steel rod with silver bolts was roped off behind yellow police tape in a yard. A piece of metal rested in a bank car park.
Debris covered a terrain that ranged from the urban prairie flatlands near Dallas to the hilly pine woods of Louisiana, mostly turning up in tiny blue-collar towns that survive on farming and timber. A piece of tile fell within 75 miles of President George W Bush’s ranch in Crawford.
There were no reports of any injuries from the falling debris.
Authorities urged the public to report any debris but not touch it for fear of contamination from toxic substances. The Army sent in helicopters and soldiers to locate and guard bits of wreckage, which could be pivotal in determining the cause of the disaster.
The Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000ft over Texas, killing all seven astronauts just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida.
Debris has been tracked in a 500-square-mile area but could be spread over a region three times that, said James Kroll, director of the Emergency Geospacial Mapping Centre at Stephen F Austin State University in Nacogdoches.
As authorities rushed to secure pieces of the shuttle, residents gathered to get a glimpse.
“Everybody’s treating this like it’s an alien crash,” said Phillip Russell, 17.
Jim Stutzman of Nacogdoches – 135 miles north-east of Houston – found a 9in long, 2in wide piece of metal in his yard.
“It has heat burns, melted metal and some of the grass burned into it when it fell,” he said.
Jeff Hancock, a 29-year-old dentist, said a foot-long metal bracket smashed through the roof of his office.
“It’s all over,” said James Milford, owner of Milford Barber shop in downtown Nacogdoches. “There are several little pieces, some parts of machinery.”
Behind a bank in Nacogdoches, flowers were laid out – including seven pink roses – in a makeshift memorial as residents gathered around a taped-off area that contained a 3 sq ft piece of metal.
Ed Rohner, Nacogdoches airport manager, said some type of tank ended up on a runway, and debris was scattered along the airport entrance road.
Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell said debris was reported to have fallen around the towns of Jacksonville, Palestine, Rusk and Athens in east Texas.
“We’ve had people bring pieces of it up here to the office,” he said. “We certainly want to discourage that.”
Debris found in San Augustine County about 140 miles north-east of Houston included a charred astronaut’s patch and a flight helmet.
Debris also fell in western Louisiana, including a smouldering bundle of wires in a Shreveport front yard and pieces that reportedly dropped into Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas border, threatening water supplies.
“I heard the piece coming down through the air. It sounded like it was fluttering,” said Elbie Bradley, 69, who was fishing on the reservoir.
One of the pieces that fell into the reservoir was the size of a compact car, said Sheriff Tom Maddox.
Two F-16s from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth were dispatched to Tyler to map the debris field.
The Federal Aviation Administration established a no-fly zone to clear the airspace for mapping. It barred other aircraft from taking off, landing or flying below 3,000 feet in a 50-mile wide swath from Ennis, in central Texas, to Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Helicopters and soldiers from Fort Hood in central Texas were also dispatched, a spokesman said. Members of the National Guard were protecting the debris.
G W Jones, assistant administrator at Nacogdoches Memorial Hospital, said at least 42 people had come to the hospital seeking information after touching pieces of debris. He had no reports of any adverse effects so far.
“We’re telling them to just wash their hands and any other body parts that may have come in contact with the debris,” Jones said. “The first thing is not to touch it. If they do, they should contact their local ER or family doctor for any follow up.”
Shuttles have long used a chemical called hydrazine to run their auxiliary power units. Hydrazine, a colourless liquid with an ammonia-like odour, is a toxic chemical and can cause harm to anyone who comes in contact with it.
Much of the area where debris has been reported lies in the Piney Woods timber region of east Texas, which is rugged and densely wooded in places. The Texas Forest Service was helping local officials plot debris locations on a map.