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4.25.2005

‘Fireball' In The Sky Thrills And Scares People Across Region

This interesting article was posted at Signs of the Times.

The Day

As daylight was fading over the marsh behind Rick and Kim Swan's house in Old Saybrook Sunday night, a group of about 22 parents and children were setting up in the Swans' back yard and on the deck to check out the full moon, Jupiter and Saturn.

The “moon and star party” was part of a lesson on the solar system for the home-schoolers, who were both making and setting up telescopes. At about 7:45 p.m., the sky had not yet darkened enough for their observation — but they got a startling, and impressive, bonus.

A ball of flame rocketed across the twilight sky, racing east to west before vanishing somewhere over Long Island Sound.

“It was huge,” Kim Swan said. “It was really large, and it was white and yellow with green around the edges. It was really beautiful.”

People from throughout the region, and as far away as Maine, began calling police and fire departments Sunday night with reports of a multicolored object traveling from east to west at high speed. The Coast Guard put out an alert to look for an airplane that had possibly crashed near the Thimble Islands in Branford while police and firefighters were dispatched to reports that airplanes had crashed at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme and South Windham.

The Old Saybrook amateur astronomers, as space aficionados like to say, were not alone.

People called local fire and police stations to report a plane and flashes of green or orange flames in the sky, said John Mincey, a petty officer with the U.S. Coast Guard's Long Island Sound office.

What everyone saw at about the same time, however, was neither a UFO, a plane in the throes of crashing, or an errant satellite.

What they saw were meteors, possibly from the Lyrid meteor shower, which was scheduled to be visible to the naked eye between April 20 and April 25.

It took about an hour for local emergency officials, town leaders, air tower operators at the region's airports, and state and federal emergency crews to figure that out. Although callers never reported a plane being down, emergency officials could not immediately rule out that possibility, said John Harland, a U.S. Coast Guard duty officer at the Long Island Sound office.

Eventually, at the Federal Aviation Administration's New England division, experts checked with Tweed and Groton-New London airports and metropolitan airports along the seaboard, and determined that no aircraft was unaccounted for , said Holly Baker, an FAA spokeswoman.

Of course, Wayne Fraser, East Lyme's first selectman, at first had no way of knowing that. Dressed in denim, he joined Niantic and Flanders firefighters who tore themselves away from jobs and dinner to be on standby after some reports came across as a plane crash between Point O' Woods in Old Lyme and Rocky Neck.

“We got our emergency operations center prepared just in case there truly was a plane down,” said Fraser. “We brought in the assistant director for public safety, an extra dispatcher. This thing kind of moved through the state police and Coast Guard.”

Nearby, at the Millstone nuclear complex in Waterford, near the East Lyme border, officials had not seen anything but had heard the same reports Fraser heard and were watching for any signs of trouble, Spokesman Pete Hyde said.

At about 8:30 p.m., Fraser and resident state trooper Michael Collins drove to the beach, only to find half a dozen boaters placidly adrift in Long Island Sound.

“There was a lot of boat activity off shore and nobody was scrambling,” Fraser said.

At the Long Island Sound office, Mincey and Harland likewise heard no reports of distress from callers. Within the hour, one of the Coast Guard's own vessels confirmed what emergency workers were only too happy to hear: the debris lighting up the night sky belonged to the tails of meteors.

Mystic Seaport Planetarium supervisor Donald Treworgy said the eyewitness reports indicate that what people saw was a meteor.

A fireball is the term that people often use to describe an exceptionally bright meteor,” he said. “It could be a piece of space junk but the military keeps close tabs on those types of things.

He said the color of the meteor depends on what it is made of and said they sometimes leave a trail.

“I didn't see it. I wish I had,” he said.

Sarah Porter of Stonington described a white ball with a red tail and said it did not appear to be a plane to her. People described the meteor has having a whole spectrum of different colors.

“It was so close it looked like it was going to hit Stonington Point,” she said.