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Author of 'Bringing Columbia Home' reminisces on space shuttle tragedy

HOUSTON – When space shuttle Columbia was launched 15 years ago, then-NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach gave the final “go” for launch.

"I've relived that day over and over and I've relived that day when I said go too and maybe I shouldn't have said go," Leinbach said.

No one knew a piece of foam fell off during liftoff, leaving a hole in one of Columbia’s wings. During re-entry, he saw it disappear on his computer screen.

"Never envisioned a re-entry failure. But it happened," he said.

WATCH: Moment of silence for astronauts on Columbia space shuttle

NASA immediately sent Leinbach from Florida to Texas to recover Columbia and its crew. When he arrived, Leinbach found a volunteer army.

"There was never a thought of payment or anything. It was all, 'What do you need? What can we do for you?’” he said.

He and author Jonathan Ward wrote the just-released book “Bringing Columbia Home.”

It’s a uniquely Texas story about how the people of East Texas did the extraordinary.

"There were thousands, literally tens of thousands of people who were working behind the scenes to make this recovery happen," Leinbach said. "It's a compelling American story of volunteerism and really the best of America coming out and just helping in a time of need."

WATCH: KPRC2's original report on Columbia tragedy

He said that help included searching for debris, feeding 25,000 people and searching an area 120 miles long by 10 miles wide.

They recovered 38 percent of the shuttle and estimate about half burned up during re-entry. The remains of all seven astronauts were recovered in Sabine County.

"Columbia always made it home before. She tried to come home this time. Her flight control system was fighting a gallant effort to get back to Florida. Just couldn't bring the crew home. But we did. We brought Columbia home," Leinbach said.

They recovered 38 percent of the shuttle and estimate about half burned up during reentry. The remains of all seven astronauts were recovered in Sabine County.

"Columbia always made it home before. She tried to come home this time. Her flight control system was fighting a gallant effort to get back to Florida. Just couldn't bring the crew home. But we did. We brought Columbia home," Leinbach said.