Saturday, May 07, 2005

Meteor recalls 'Great Fireball' of 1966

Signs of the Times
Meteor recalls 'Great Fireball' of 1966

Friday, May 06, 2005By PATRICK ROWAN

On Sunday, April 24, people from Maine to Long Island reported everything from UFOs to missiles in the sky around 7:45 in the evening. Having ruled out a plane crash, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman fingered the Lyrid meteor shower - a typically weak annual display that peaked days earlier - as the likely culprit. She said the "shower sparked a flurry of frantic phone calls to police departments across New England."

Accounts of an object's color, direction, or time, can be inconsistent, and leave the impression that multiple objects have appeared. But like others familiar with such sightings, I knew the reports likely originated from a single event. Witnesses calling the National Weather Service in Taunton, and the personnel who field those calls, tend to be more experienced skywatchers; thus their early conclusion that this was one fireball high in the atmosphere visible over wide areas.

The object appeared too early in the evening, and traveled in the wrong direction, to be a Lyrid. Not associated with any known shower, this was by definition a "sporadic" meteor - possibly a small asteroid 5 or 10 feet across. To my knowledge, if any fragments survived the plunge to earth, none have been found. Fragments from other falls can be seen at the Springfield Science Museum's "Rocks from Space" permanent exhibit.

What is certain is that this was one dazzling sight. "It was such a weird thing," said Elizabeth Duquette of Longmeadow, who spotted the fireball through her car windshield as she drove south along Main Street in Wilbraham. "The sky was still perfectly light," she said. "The ball was very distinct, and bright, bright green, and had a long bright white tail." Her view - limited by roadside trees - lasted only a few seconds. "If I had looked down to change my radio, I might have missed it," she said.

Bright fireballs actually occur quite often, but most go unnoticed in the daylight, late at night, or over uninhabited ocean. Fireballs that get news coverage tend to happen when people are out and about, which leads to more witnesses. One widely reported fireball over Spain this year appeared on Jan. 29, a Saturday night, at 10:30 p.m. Another passed over the northwestern U.S. at 7:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 12.

While talking about the April 24 event with Richard Sanderson, curator of physical science at the Springfield Science Museum, we realized that the great fireball of April 25, 1966, occurred 39 years ago almost to the day from last week's event. Seen by thousands from Washington, D.C., to eastern Canada, it was the most widely observed and photographed fireball of its time.

Sanderson noted that the museum had possession of a famous 16 mm film of the 1966 event shot from the Municipal Group in downtown Springfield by Channel 22 news photographer George Gambino (see photo).
How lucky I feel to have witnessed that incredible event. I was 13 years old and playing with a neighbor near my home in Florence just after sunset when I noticed a star in the southwest - strange since it was still almost daylight. Barely had that registered when a thin white line shot out of the "star's" left side. The "star" rapidly brightened and grew, and in an instant I realized it was the "star" moving, not that white line.

Yelling to my friend, we both watched it intensify into a flaming ball the size of a full moon that lumbered sluggishly across the western sky. The head became a hellish churning mass of blazing red eruptions, its teardrop shape leaving a swirling vortex of flame and smoke in its wake. Flaring brightly several times, this qualified as an exploding meteor, or bolide.

The detail visible through the clear air gave the impression this thing was low and close as fragments dropped away leaving their own smoke trails. Excited and terrified, who knows what we nervously shouted to each other. Never would we have guessed that it was 60 miles up and 100 miles away. Skimming the treetops to the northwest, it was disintegrating as it finally disappeared below the ridge line - at least 100 degrees from where it all began.

We hightailed it to alert family, neighbors and everyone else we could. The smoke train lingered for 20 minutes, long enough to share with others. Tuning in to WHMP, our local AM radio station, we were surprised to hear the announcer describe the smoke train from his studio's window in downtown Northampton.

Near the Campanile in Springfield, WWLP-TV news cameraman George Gambino managed to record much of the 31 second-long event on black and white 16 mm film. Frames from his movie soon graced the pages of Life Magazine's May 6 issue, and Sky & Telescope's June 1966 edition.


At 2:07 AM, Blogger bob said...

I saw it too. I was 14 years old and still have a vivid picture in my mind. Your description is exactly as I witnessed. It was just before dark. It was in the western sky and I believe the sun had just set. I felt its direction was heading north. I do remember the trail after it disappeared on the horizon. The sky had been fairly clear that day. The picture of it in my mind has haunted me Since then.I witnessed it from Bristol Connecticut.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger John Joy said...

I was 15 and saw it in Peekskill, NY. Very colorful, very bright, making hissing sounds. I can't believe how this memory is so stark. The Russian fireball brought it all back to me.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Philip Weiss said...

I was 12 and saw it in Dobbs Ferry, NY. Yes, it was amazingly colorful. I recall that the fireball was predominantly red, orange and yellow, but there was sparkles of green, purple and blue as the content of the fireball, most likely metal-based were oxidizing. To this day, I recall it almost like it happened yesterday. I too thought of this event since the Russian fireball.

At 7:30 PM, Blogger John Otto said...

Thank you for verifying my memory. Your description is spot on.

I was in the third grade playing outside with my sister, in Wantagh, NY. It was a dark blue sky right after sunset and I was wondering why the sun was shooting across the sky. The fireball made a strange noise as it moved from south to north and made a smokey trail.

It appeared to be as big as the moon. In retrospect the lack of a sonic boom confused me because based on the size, and seeing jets overhead all the time, I figured it was moving well over 700 mph.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Addie said...

I saw this meteor when I was seven years old. I was playing outside in Long Island City, NY when I saw what looked like a huge ball of craggy rock encased in orange/yellow flame streaking across the sky for about two or three seconds until it disappeared from my sight. From my vantage point, it appeared to be traveling parallel to the ground, moving along the length of Manhattan island from south to north. It left a thick plume of smoke in its wake that could still be seen for well over an hour afterwards.

Every time I think about seeing this meteor, I always recall a now humorous incident connected with it: A day or two afterwards, there were parent-teacher meetings scheduled at my school. My mother, while speaking with my second grade teacher, told her that I'd seen the meteor that had been in the news. My teacher was very excited about it, and told my mother to have me write a report on it. Although I did write one, even including a drawing of what I'd seen at the bottom of the page, I wasn't at all happy about it. I remember complaining to my mother, "You shouldn't have told my teacher because now I have to write a report!" Oh, but how I wish I had that report now!

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Jeanne Elliott said...

I am so happy to be reading these comments....I was 6, living in East Northport, NY. We lived in an old house and I hated being upstairs by myself but I was being punished and sent to my room. When I hit the top landing of the stairs, out the large north window, I saw a huge fireball flying through the sky. I screamed for my parents who told me I probably saw the reflection of the sun setting off an airplane....BUT...the next night at the dinner table my father read me a story out of Newsday explaing to me what a meteor was. Some memories you never forget!

At 7:38 PM, Blogger ex MM1(ss) said...

I was 9 years old and walking up the street going home from a cub scout meeting and saw it. This was in Stratford, NJ. I remember it being reddish-orange and didn't look like it was traveling that fast because of the distance. It was about 1/2 to 3/4 size of a full moon. I remember it was a Monday.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger ex MM1(ss) said...

I was 9 years old and walking up the street going home from a cub scout meeting and saw it. This was in Stratford, NJ. I remember it being reddish-orange and didn't look like it was traveling that fast because of the distance. It was about 1/2 to 3/4 size of a full moon. I remember it was a Monday.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger Randy Ridley said...

I also saw this when i was 12.
There was a few of us playing in the
local park in Scarborough,Ontario. Canada.
I do remember hearing the sound as it went over Lake Ontario.
It was huge !

At 7:25 PM, Blogger ruminator said...

October 2013
Yes. I saw it. Cackling low and slow across the horizon with an 'out of this world' subwoofer rumble. It was closer to 6:45PM, I think. The twilight was just beginning, not ending and the sky was only slightly less than full bright. 7:45PM makes it too dark

I was 14 walking home from who knows where in Stoughton, MA and I remember saying to myself "Mitchell..what is THAT" and I didn't know but I do know it stopped me in my tracks. I thought it was a burning airliner, at first, and my God those poor people but when it didn't crash it couldn't be. It just kept on cooking, this flaming monstrosity, and I was glad it did because had it come down it was so close I'd be trouble ..or so it seemed.. and although completely confident of my survival skills, at 14, this event took my breath away and it gave cause to wonder. I was transfixed. By the time I figured out it wasn't a plane on fire, I knew it was something special. At 14, I knew it was even more special than Star Trek because this thing really WAS extraterrestrial and it really DID come from the beyond.

I was obsessed over the next few days asking everybody in sight "did you see that fireball in sky?" and everybody said no. Over the next few weeks I only asked people I knew and gradually over time I asked fewer and fewer people but the answer was always the same. NOBODY had seen it. Occasionally, even years later, I'd ask the question and I don't know why because I already knew the answer.

What I saw that day was extraordinary and with every "no" or "huh?" it became more extraordinary. Nobody but me saw it and it's one of my "keeper" memories. I'd wished others saw it too but they didn't and I finally accepted the fact that I was the only person on this planet who saw it .. even if it did make me feel like Dreyfuss in Close Encounters .. so THANK GOD I found this thread because now I know I am not alone. Now I know there are "others", lol, who saw what I saw and THANK GOD I found you because, tell you the truth, feeling like Dreyfuss in Close Encounters has been getting old (g)

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Dad said...

I saw it too. I was 11 and was outside in the common driveway behind my house having a catch with a friend. I lived in Northeast Philadelphia. From that vantage point it was almost directly overhead as it went by travelling in a northward direction. It took about 10 seconds to go across the section of the sky not blocked by houses on either side of the driveway. It was huge, mostly round with pockmarks on it. It appeared to roll across the sky and the pockmarks would flame slightly I assume as it scraped the atmosphere. It appeared to be about twice the size of the moon. There was a picture of it on the front page of the Philadelphia Bulletin within the next day or so and they said it was a meteor and that it landed in New England or Canada. That surprised me because it seemed so close, I thought it landed a few blocks away. I'll never forget it!

At 8:25 PM, Blogger guy brunet said...

That fireball flamed out directly over Hawkesbury, Ontario, Canada. I was in my friends 2nd storey living room, when his mother looked out and commented on a low flying helicopter, then immediately said, "that's no helicopter". We dashed out onto the balcony, that faced South, in time to see a large fireball coming right at us. It was green and orange and breaking into pieces. It flamed out overhead and looking straight up I could see and hear what appeared to be rocks, fluttering through the air leaving wispy smoke trails. I would guess that most of those pieces splashed down in the Ottawa river north of town. I was 18 years old that day, and remember it vividly.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger guy brunet said...

That fireball flamed out directly over Hawkesbury, Ontario, Canada. I was in my friends 2nd storey living room, when his mother looked out and commented on a low flying helicopter, then immediately said, "that's no helicopter". We dashed out onto the balcony, that faced South, in time to see a large fireball coming right at us. It was green and orange and breaking into pieces. It flamed out overhead and looking straight up I could see and hear what appeared to be rocks, fluttering through the air leaving wispy smoke trails. I would guess that most of those pieces splashed down in the Ottawa river north of town. I was 18 years old that day, and remember it vividly.

At 8:02 AM, Blogger John Otto said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:06 AM, Blogger John Otto said...

Regarding the time discrepancy about it being too light out to be after 7pm when observed; daylight savings time started the night before at 2:00 AM.

What really confuses me is why more people didn't see this thing which passed over Manhattan, and flew up the east coast of the Untied States. It was one of the most spectacular things I've ever observed and it seems as if it had only a small number of witnesses, even though it had a potential audience of about 50 million.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Dad said...

John Otto - tons of people saw it, as reported in the Philadelphia Bulletin the next day (I have a copy of the article). If this happened today, we'd have loads of cell phone images and videos. IT WAS HUGE !!!
It was not 10 to 12 feet across. Above Philadelphia, it had not yet fully entered the atmosphere, so it was not engulfed in flames that would make it look brighter and larger. I saw what it actually looked like - a mostly round boulder slowly rolling across the sky much the way a tire would roll on a road at about a rotation every 1 or 3 seconds. Indentations or pockmarks on the surface of the object would spit small flames on the underside of the object, apparently as it scratched the upper reaches of the atmosphere. I had a clear view -it was almost overhead as it passed my location. The apparent size was larger than what a full moon would be at that location in the sky. When you figure that the upper atmosphere is 20 or 30 miles up, an object visible the apparent size I described had to be a half a mile in diameter, at least. When taking the time of day, it's direction, and it's extremely flat trajectory, the Earth's orbit around the Sun (at 65,000 MPH) carried us out of the way of this thing. As it went into full flame mode up in NY and New England, possibly a small piece broke off and headed Earthward to Ontario. The larger part kept on a straighter path out of the atmosphere and back out into space. If this all be the case, then on April 24, 1966 we were all very lucky that the object didn't crash our party a few seconds earlier.
Joe Chmielewski
NE Philly kid in 1966

At 12:10 AM, Blogger Bill Deane said...

I was nine, living in LaGrangeville, NY, and getting ready for bed at 8:35 PM, when my mother yelled at me to come outside and see the "UFO." By the time I got there, it was gone, but there was a zig-zagged smoke trail extending across the sky from south to north. My parents said the object was greenish-yellow, and they heard an explosion when it disappeared from view. My father called someone to report or ask about it, and got a four-word response, "It was a meteorite." Hard to believe it was 50 years ago.

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Eileen said...

I don't remember how old I was in Worcester Massachusetts out in the backyard playing with my dog when I observed a huge white fireball is big is the moon traveling from south to north with a pink white and blue trail. The most beautiful thing I've ever seen! Ran inside to tell my dad and brother and they didn't believe me until they read about it in the newspaper the next day.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Questinia said...

I saw this as a child and it is as so many had described. It is an indelible image and has haunted me ever since. It was a beautiful evening but still perfectly light, I was outside in front of my house in Westchester New York. I saw this flaming rock, cratered and sizzling, flaming and smoking headed from south to north in the western sky. I saw it unobstructed and it looked like there was nothing standing in the way between me and it. It was moving slowly and I had a very clear view as it passed at a 60 degree angle or so above me. What stuck with me most is the detail and colors, you actually saw the topography of the thing and it looked gigantic. Yes, the size of a full moon but you could tell it was something like an asteroid maybe the size of a big bus. It was crackling, and one could see fires licking inside of it. Amazing!! I recall hearing that it landed in Canada which I thought was weird because it seemed like it was going to land just a few miles away. The next day in the local paper there was a headline "Did You See It Too?" I seem to recall a photo with the article but only saw the paper briefly at the bus stop the next morning on my way to school. I was so transfixed and so mesmerized by the event and I guess that might have been the reason I didn't bring it up to anybody the next day at school. But my parents remember it too.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Dad said...

It had to be huge! From my vantage point in Northeast Philly,as it rolled across the sky, there were only spits of fire on the underside of it. It was only scratching the upper atmosphere. With what looked to be larger than the full moon at a distance of 50 to 75 miles, do the math. An airliner at 60000 feet is just a small fraction of the apparent size of the moon. This baby was huge! I am not the only one who saw it. We are all not nuts! It was the 60's. it was the Cold War. The powers that were did not want to scare us or maybe didn't want to expose our vulnerabilities. For whatever reason, the reporting of it does not jive with our eyewitness accounts.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Questinia said...

I have been thinking so much of the best way I can capture what I saw as a 9 year old. This is one of those times where I was in the right place at the right time!! As kids we must have been all outdoors on a beautiful and absolutely clear late spring evening! What keeps emerging in my mind's eye is that it was about the size of a low-flying blimp. It seemed SO close to the earth's surface that if it truly was as high as 50-75 miles then it was extremely huge!! As it passed I don't specifically recall it rotating but I distinctly saw the shape and configuration of the surface. The pock-marked and irregular jagged ravines within it licking with flames and what I thought was steam rising upwards from it(?) I saw the a portion of the underside and its eastern flank. It passed by like it was casually streaming across the sky with no hurries and I distinctly remember the hissing sound it made. There was not an intense amount of fire as it must have recently entered the atmosphere. I was in mid-Westchester about 25 miles from NYC and about 3 miles east of the Hudson River. Since I was on the northern slope of a hill and there were no trees obscuring my view to the north I saw it for at least 5-6 miles as it disappeared northward perfectly parallel to the ground. I remember the contrail and I remember going inside after the event only to go back outside and look at the dissipating contrail to consolidate the reality of what I had just seen.
I had been taking a walk with my mom and dad who were a number of yards behind me as this thing flew above and before us. My father took me, the summer of that same year (and I am realizing this just now) on a cross-country road trip and one of the places we visited was Meteor Crater!
I guess what impresses me most at this point is that what I saw was so much larger than I thought. TBH I felt like it was SO LOW to the ground because of its size and the resolution of detail I could see on the boulder's surface.
It would indeed be interesting to know what scientists at the time thought of this phenomenon!!

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Christine Wright said...

I saw a meteor in 1966 in my back yard while putting my bicycle away it was getting dark, twilight and I looked up and saw this huge object speeding above leaving a vapor trail.. it was like a ball of fire and the trailing end appeared bluish.. it seemed fairly close and I just stared try to figure out what it was. I was 10 at the time. I ran inside to get my parents but they didn't believe me! We lived in Douglaston NY.. on Long Island. The next day the news reported this was a meteor

At 11:31 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I saw witnessed it too by myself in Ct. It was right about sunset time. I was facing north and saw it go by from the east to west or northwest of Vernon, Ct. Exactly as you described. Big ball of fire with a long white tail. Seemed to look only about 10-20k feet up but most likely much higher if it landed in Canada. Incredible to see it, and nobody else in my neighborhood was outside. I was about 12 years old. Jimmy

At 11:43 PM, Blogger J Murphy said...

I was in the same situation.. Nobody else was outside to see it but me it seemed. I asked everyone at school and nobody saw it. Years went by before I met one or 2 people that saw it. I always took it as a sign, as only "special" gifted people or some special destiny was in my future. I sure had some crazy things happen to me since and wondered if it was connected, lol. Almost every person that saw it listed on this blog was between 9-15....hmmmmm.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Fred French said...

I lived in Concord NH at the time and I saw this giant boulder like object moving parallel to the ground and it was bright red and orange with some blue with sparks flying off from it. There was a hissing sound and it rocked back and forth as it hurdled by leaving a large plume of smoke/vapor as it disappeared. It looked so close to the ground. My Dad and I both saw it but he has since past away. For years I asked others in town if they had seen anything but not until now and am so glad to finally see I wasn't crazy. Fred French Northfield NH 03276 603-455-3671
This has also haunted me for years and have always felt the need to talk to someone else who saw this event.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


At 10:36 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

We got on our bikes and raced torwords the ct.river in longmeadow ma. I could hear it the ball of green and yellow following the ct.river northward.i felt a presance that i still feel to this reports said it ended up in ohio if i remember was no meteor.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Edgar said...

I was ten years old then living in a quiet town outside Lowell, MA. At dusk it fell to me to put the bicycles in the basement. I was in the driveway goofing around on my little sister's tricycle before putting it inside for the night. The first sensation that registered was the never before experienced roar like a howitzer but continuous rather than sporadic. Next from the left anf LOW in the sky appeared a gigantic mass moving to the right and at a slight downward angle. Shooting gas and flame of every color, it passed directly in front of me very low in the sky. A vapor trail hung 15 - 20 minutes afterwards in its wake. What an exhilerating finish to an otherwise unremarkable day.

While my six brothers and sisters were home, nobody else in the house or immediate neighborhood saw the thing.


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