NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Rain-drenched searchers trudging through the muddy forests and fields of East Texas gathered everything from tiny slivers to huge chunks of debris yesterday as they tried to find clues to what caused space shuttle Columbia's destruction.
Investigators also checked reports of debris in California and Arizona, but shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said late yesterday that as far as he knows, no shuttle parts had been confirmed west of Fort Worth, Texas.
"We're still looking for that elusive missing link," he said.
So far, none of the more than 12,000 individual pieces found in a field stretching across East Texas and Louisiana has provided the critical answers NASA is looking for.
The shuttle was made of about 2 million parts, many of which shattered into pieces as small as a nickel. Key pieces for NASA's investigation will be the data recorders, certain tiles and parts from the left wing where sensors showed a temperature rise before the shuttle broke up over Texas on Saturday.
With the heavy rain falling throughout the day across the debris field yesterday, experts worried that sensitive pieces could be buried in mud or degrade if left exposed.
Clad in long yellow raincoats and cowboy hats with protective covering, volunteers and NASA-trained searchers scoured the ground in East Texas for even the tiniest pieces. Sabine County Sheriff Tommy Maddox said people were bringing in everything from tiny items to pieces 15 to 20 feet long.
At the Toledo Bend Reservoir along the Louisiana border, searchers in Army helicopters said they had spotted at least one large object in the water. EPA senior response manager Jim Mullins said it could be the car-size piece of debris reported by fishermen Saturday.
A dive team was unable to begin hunting in the reservoir yesterday, but the team was standing by with an underwater remote-operated vehicle equipped with cameras and sonar.
David Bary, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said searchers had stopped counting the individual pieces found at about 12,000. The parts include the shuttle's nose cone and at least two possible wing sections, though it wasn't clear which side of the shuttle they came from.
The debris, including about 1,000 pieces on the way to Barksdale Air Force Base, will be "laid out for viewing and inspection" by officials, then taken to Kennedy Space Center to be reconstructed, Dittemore said.
Also yesterday, authorities said several people had turned in items since federal prosecutors announced an amnesty period for anyone who illegally picked up Columbia debris. They did not provide details.