ACROSS Northeast, people flood emergency centers with calls after seeing bright lights in sky

Tuesday, July 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

POTTSVILLE, Pa. (AP) _ James Mennig's story of what he saw in the sky was so incredible his own mother didn't believe him.

To him, the bright lights looked like a plane engulfed in flames. But authorities said it was likely a meteor shower or a different type of natural phenomenon known as a fireball or ``bolide.''

``It was about the size of that Jeep Cherokee,'' the 22-year-old Pottsville resident said Monday evening, pointing to a parked vehicle.

Similar sightings were reported throughout the Northeast, with people from Virginia to New York saying they saw lights in the sky and heard loud noises.

``This is a natural event, which is called a bolide or a fireball. It is similar to the shooting stars you see sporadically at night in its appearance, but as far as the physical nature of this object is concerned it's quite different from the periodic meteor showers we get,'' U.S. Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester said.

``This is a random piece of rock that happened to have the misfortune of being in the same part of space occupied by the Earth at the same time,'' he said. ``In this particular case, the Earth won.''

In Buffalo, N.Y., National Weather Service observers received reports of a bright meteor in western and southern New York state.

``We got our first call at about 6:25,'' meteorologist Dave Sage said. ``Then the calls just started coming in.''

In Wellsboro, a town in the northern Pennsylvania mountains, Patrick Kane was on a porch with friends about 6:30 p.m. when they saw a bright yellow streak move rapidly across the sky. It was trailed by a long plume of white smoke.

Less than a minute after the fireball was gone, a loud boom shook the windows, Kane said.

``It almost sounded like when you're at the fireworks and they send out the one to just kind of make noise,'' he said.

At McGuire Air Force Base in Wrightstown, N.J., Airman Sharon Carpenter was on break around 6 p.m. in the air traffic control tower when she looked up and saw an orange streak north of the base. In less than a second, the westbound streak was gone, seen by no other air traffic or radar controllers in the tower.

``I spent the rest of the night trying to prove to them that I wasn't going crazy,'' Carpenter said.

Alexander Wolszczan, an astronomy professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that the shaking that people felt could have resulted from a sound wave produced by a meteor breaking apart in the atmosphere.

Normally, a meteor shower is a silent event, he said, but large meteors can create concussive sound waves or even hit the earth. Often, meteors are hundreds of feet in diameter before the rock burns up in the atmosphere, he said.