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Searchers: Task was tough

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

They endured sleet and snow and skunks.

They trudged through falling rain and thorns and underbrush so thick that they couldn't see 5 feet ahead.

They waited hours in line to eat. They slept on the concrete floor of an old cotton baling warehouse.

They did it all hoping to find missing pieces _ and missing answers _ to the Columbia shuttle that fell from the sky Feb. 1.

Two Tampa firefighters and a handful of other firefighters from around Tampa Bay and Central Florida returned Tuesday, more than two weeks after heading to Corsicana, Texas, to search for shuttle debris.

They came back proud to have found pieces of the shuttle, but somber that they had to search at all.

"It's hard to believe that something so big could be brought down by some small mistake," said Kris Greene, a Tampa Fire Rescue driver/engineer, still wearing his boots and hardhat.

Tampa firefighter Jeff Reigel agreed. But he said being part of the search team helped ease the shock of the tragedy.

"It makes such a bad experience (a little better)," said Reigel, who recovered a couple of pieces of debris. "It was worth it. To not find anything would have been tough."

Because of security concerns, they weren't allowed to discuss details of the debris they found.

Tampa fire rescue Capt. Bill Wade praised the firefighters, who were paid to search but used their vacation time.

"I think it's great. I'm glad there are individuals who are willing to do this," Wade said. He said their work will help ensure that "the jigsaw puzzle comes together and this thing gets solved."

After two weeks of 14-hour days, the men seemed ecstatic to be home Tuesday under the warm Florida sun. Their American Airlines flight from Dallas arrived early _ but not a moment too soon.

"I'm looking forward to taking hot showers, fixing food in my kitchen, the bed I sleep in," said Pat Ritson, 24, a firefighter with the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department. "I took a lot for granted.

Like Ritson, all of the firefighters seemed intensely grateful to be able to do something the Columbia astronauts did not _ return home.

In the baggage claim downstairs they grabbed their backpacks and rucksacks and hugged family members.

Ritson embraced his wife, Samantha. The couple, who will celebrate their second anniversary this weekend, had never been apart so long.

Outside, Reigel scooped up his smiling 7-year-old son, Chris. Sitting next to the boy were Reigel's 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, and his wife, Carleen.

The firefighter slipped behind the wheel of his Ford F250 pickup and, surrounded by his family, drove away.