Ft. Belknap man finds Columbia data recorder

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KEYWORDS: Columbia data recorder columbia space shuttle wreck space shuttle black box Ft Belknap firefighters Chauncy Birdtail

AUTHOR: Jan-Mikael Patterson, Tribune Staff Writer

FORT BELKNAP — A firefighter from Fort Belknap found what is potentially the most important piece of debris from the space shuttle Columbia.

Chauncy Birdtail, 25, found the data recorder last Wednesday near Hemphill, Texas, about 60 miles east of Nacogdoches.


An early look at the tape offered hope that it was in good enough shape to yield some information, a NASA spokesman said Monday.

Birdtail is a member of Robert Earth Boy’s Fort Belknap No. 3 crew, part of more than 600 Montana wildland firefighters now searching for debris from the Feb. 1 disaster.

The Fort Belknap crew is one of 31 firefighter crews from Montana in Texas, with six more 20-person crews scheduled to go this week, according to Colleen Finneman with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula.

“Some people called here and said they saw (Birdtail) on CNN and it was the same time as the bombing,” George Stiff Arm, project manager for Fort Belknap Forestry, said Monday.

“I’m very proud of him and the crews down there,” he said. “They do a good job hiking all day.”

Chauncy’s wife, Dana Birdtail, said he called last week telling her of what he had found.

“I’m surprised and happy for him,” she said.

The box was found on a slope buried 3 inches deep from impact.

“The ground was damp but it was not in the water, which was encouraging about the condition it’s in,” Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said.

“The box weighs about 58 pounds and looks like a small black suitcase,” said Dave Youngman, NASA spokesman in Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The box is at the Imation Corp. in Oakdale, Minn., which specializes in cleaning and repairing magnetic tape, Youngman said.

The box was in the crew compartment under a crew member’s seat in the most protected area of the shuttle.

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This article originally appeared in the Great Falls Tribune.