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Space Shuttle Columbia

Ed Lavandera: The difficulty of debris recovery

By Ed Lavandera

CNN's Ed Lavandera
CNN's Ed Lavandera

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The Shuttle Tragedy: Watch continuing coverage of the investigation, debris recovery and hometown reactions.
•  Audio Slide Show: Shuttle lost
•  Timeline: Investigation
•  Gallery: New safety guidelines
•  Gallery: Columbia crew
•  Report: Findings, counsel

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas (CNN) -- It's such a difficult story to cover because it's so spread out. It's so unbelievable to think that these seven astronauts were in what is now all the debris that you're finding around here.

It's kind of easy to get lost in the search efforts of this debris, and it can become less personal. Then you stop and realize these were people working and thousands of people here on the ground supporting them, and you realize that it's not just hunks of metal that you are looking at. It's something much deeper than that.

Many people here described this thunderous roaring sound as the shuttle debris started raining down on Nacogdoches, and they say it lasted for several minutes. And they really struggled to describe it.

The easiest terms come to mind, and they'll say, "Oh, it sounded like a tornado or a train." But I think that's just the quickest thing they can think of. I don't think anyone has found a way to perfectly describe the sound, except that it was nothing like they'd ever heard before.

It's pretty amazing to watch because everywhere you go there's always somebody carrying around a video camera or a still camera taking pictures of debris.

And countless times people are coming up to me and sharing digital pictures or the home videos of what they've taken or what they've seen. It's been so incredibly documented around the area. It's been pretty amazing to watch.

I think the interesting thing about this -- and I always try to look on the positive side of all these types of situations -- are the reactions you get from people who are closest to the scene.

I also am reminded of how proud the victims' family members were of what they were doing and what all of these people are doing. You always try and keep that at the back of your mind. It reminds me of exactly why we're here.

The stories I've heard from people who have come across the debris have been secondhand. I was struck by two young boys who came across human remains a little bit southeast of here.

They rushed and told their parents about what they had found. I think something like that in the chaotic moment of this time -- I don't think things like that ever set in. I think it takes awhile to really come to terms with a discovery like that. I think it takes awhile to really understand what they have seen.

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