DALLAS - Residents of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana said they saw flames and heard a window-rattling boom Saturday about the time the space shuttle Columbia broke up on its way to a landing at Cape Canaveral.
"It was like a car hitting the house or an explosion. It shook that much," said John Ferolito, 60, of Carrolton, north of Dallas.
NASA declared an emergency after losing communication with Columbia as the ship soared across Texas at an altitude of about 200,000 feet while traveling at six times the speed of sound. The space agency said search and rescue teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were alerted.
Possible debris from the shuttle was reported on the ground at Nacogdoches, in eastern Texas.
"It's all over Nacogdoches," said James Milford, owner of Milford Barber shop in downtown Nacogdoches. "There are several little pieces, some parts of machinery ... there's been a lot of pieces about 3 feet wide."
Gary Hunziker in Plano said he saw the shuttle flying overhead.
"I could see two bright objects flying off each side of it," he told The Associated Press. "I just assumed they were chase jets."
"I was getting ready to go out, and I heard a big bang and the windows shook in the house," Ferolito told the AP. "I thought it was a sonic boom."
Louisiana State Police in Bossier City, 182 miles east of Dallas, got so many calls that one trooper had to be assigned just to answer the phone.
"One said he saw a plane breaking up over Shreveport. One said he saw a big ball of fire," state police Sgt. Steve Robinson said. Another caller from the DeSoto Parish, south of Bossier City, said a blast "shook his house," the sergeant said.
Residents of Arkansas also reported seeing the shuttle break up, and Jim Harris, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Huckabee, said there was a strong possibility that some debris could have landed in the state.
Terry Ruby of Stamps, Ark., said her husband, Doug, called as he was heading for a fishing trip. "He called me and said 'Terry I think we are being attacked. I just saw this explosion,'" she said.
Doug Ruby later told the AP that he pulled off the road to watch.
"We saw it coming across the sky real bright and shiny and all in one piece. We thought it was the sun shining off an airplane," Doug Ruby said. "Then it broke up in about six pieces, they were all balls of fire, before it went over the tree line."