Chunk could be shuttle tile

February 05, 2003 12:00 am

By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER

A Deer Flat man might have found a piece of space shuttle in his yard Monday.

Gary Rolfe said he stepped into his yard Monday evening to find a 6-by-8-inch chunk of what looked like dark, porous Styrofoam in his otherwise clean yard.

"It looked like a piece of ice chest," he said. "I thought it was something that had blown out of my trash."

But after watching yesterday morning's news and learning the space shuttle orbiter Columbia began coming apart Saturday morning over California, Rolfe said he put it all together.

Ironically, Rolfe's brother lives in Santa Cruz and woke up this morning to reporters at his house — but they asked him about the piece of tile possibly found in the beachside town, not about his brother in the foothills.

After receiving yesterday's call, a Tuolumne County Sheriff's sergeant retrieved the mystery chunk from Rolfe's yard near Groveland. Sgt. Matt Zelinsky took digital photos of the object, which he later e-mailed to California Highway Patrol's Emergency Notification Tactical Alert Center — also known as the Amber Alert system. Officials there passed the photos on to NASA, said Lt. John Steely, spokesman for the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department.

Steely said this morning that the sheriff's department had not heard back from the space agency, and was treating the debris as found property — not shuttle debris or case evidence.

"We don't know what it is and we're waiting for word from NASA to see if they want to come look at it," Steely said.

But Confidence resident Doug Kohl, who formerly worked as a site test conductor at John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and helped repair and maintain Columbia, saw the photos and said the debris could be pieces of the ship.

"Definitely the first thing to come off the orbiter was shuttle tile," Kohl said.

"Just looking at it, it looks real similar."

California would be the logical place to find tiles, Kohl said, as the orbiter had just begun re-entering Earth's atmosphere over the golden state's coastline.