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Town Experiences Tragedy Tourism

The 19th-century main square beckons antique-hunters to stroll the quaint, brick-lined streets of Texas' oldest town. Downtown businesses cultivate an Old West feel, with a faded-brick lawyer's office still bearing the lettering of a frontier land office.

History is Nacogdoches' biggest selling point. And now, the town has some tragic, 21st-century history to offer, because this is where many pieces of space shuttle Columbia came to rest.

"We've always been known for the history that happened here over 200 years ago," said Pam Fitch, executive director of the Nacogdoches Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And now we've got this history happening around us today."

Rick King said the town - and the whole region - must decide how to deal with the fact that tourists will come here because of tragedy.

"All I can say is, things will never be the same," said King, a shopkeeper in Shanksville, Pa., who directs pilgrims to the gravel patch where passengers forced down the hijacked United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. "They'll be forever linked to that day - just like we are."

In the piney woods of east Texas, it has already started.

Since the shuttle disaster Feb. 1, people have poured into this town of 30,000 to get a glimpse of a place whose name, until then, most people could not pronounce (it's Nack-uh-DOH-chus). Instead of asking Fitch's staff about the 1779 Old Stone Fort or the state's largest azalea garden, visitors seek directions to shuttle debris sites.

All last week, Jill Carroll, who works at the Heart of Texas gallery downtown, watched with mild disgust as people parked on the square, walked across to the bank parking lot where a shuttle part fell, took pictures and drove off.

"I thought it was kind of tacky," said Carroll, who sells everything from carved armadillos to Texas-shaped plaques covered in barbed wire.

But as other cities can tell Nacogdoches, it is only human nature to want to see the places where such tragedies occurred.

In Oklahoma City, about half of the tourists surveyed say they came just to visit the memorial to the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing of the federal building, said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

And Watkins knows that each visit means tourism dollars that would not have been spent there otherwise.

"We struggled a little bit with our image after it happened," she says. "And instead of running from it, we decided to embrace it and the good that came from this tragic situation."

King, an assistant fire chief in Shanksville, was one of the first to the Flight 93 crash site. Now, he must live with the fact that his business is up by about 15 percent because of the makeshift memorial that was still attracting an average of up to 8,000 visitors a week last fall.

"You do feel a little bit guilty about it," said King, whose Ida's Store is about two miles from the site.

In normally sleepy Nacogdoches, tourists usually come to ride horses, hike "the Big Thicket" and scuba dive in the area's lakes. Now thousands have come for those very activities, only now they are looking for bits of a spacecraft and the remains of its crew.

The calm and quiet that have made the town a weekend destination for stressed-out Houstonians and Dallas residents now seem a distant memory, Fitch said.

The convention center's Web site got about 200 hits the Saturday before the Columbia tragedy. The day of the disaster, 7,000 people visited the site, and traffic was still five times normal a week later.

Some of those virtual visits will translate into actual visits. And Fitch isn't quite sure how she should feel about that.

"I guess it really bothers me that anybody could consider this a positive economic gain for our community, because it's not," she said.

Unlike the Oklahoma bombing and the crash of Flight 93, the disintegration of Columbia is a disaster spread out over hundreds of miles and many communities. But, for better or worse, Nacogdoches is the dateline many around the world will identify with the tragedy.

Local business owners have already approached Mayor Roy Blake about building a memorial to the shuttle astronauts. That will make the town even more of a magnet for tourists of tragedy.

Nacogdoches officials have already reached out to cities with more experience with such tragedies for advice on what to do with the teddy bears, bouquets, poems and other tributes that have piled up at debris sites.

At the Oklahoma City memorial, an archive holds more than 1 million items left or sent to honor the bombing victims. Watkins said Nacogdoches will want to guard its artifacts for future generations to see.

"It's now part of their city's history," she said. "And you can't deny history."

By Allen G. Breed

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