The Bell Island Boom – 41 Years Later

Photo of Lighting Bolts

I was perusing the YouTube and stumbled upon an old CBC news broadcast from 1978 about mysterious booms and a spectacular explosion that made a notable disruption of some lives on Bell Island in Conception Bay, just off the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Okay, to be honest I was perusing the YouTube looking for the old CBC news broadcast from 1978 because I had just listened to the Nighttime Podcast episode about the Bell Island Boom from April 23 2016, but that didn’t sound like a good opener.

Yes, this is a rehash of an old story, and an old episode from that podcast—which is pretty darn good if you interested in all of the weirdness that goes on in Canada—but there are some who haven’t heard of the Bell Island Boom, like me, and I was intrigued by the tale so decided to take a look at it here at Apokryphunk.

Way back when, on April 2, 1978, something strange and scary rattled the residents of a village on Bell Island, NL, Canada. Along with a shocking “explosion” locals reported strange electrical occurrences, at least one report of what some might describe as ball lightning, holes in the ground, and a massive beam of light hitting the island as reported by more a distant observer.

The CBC report begins with reports of booms heard along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from South Carolina to New Jersey. Mysterious booms are heard all over the place to this day. There are the Seneca Guns, so-named for their origins on the shores of Seneca and Cayuga lakes in Western New York. The name stuck and they are called the Seneca Guns in the Carolinas and other states as well. Otherwise they’re just called, well, “mysterious booms”. Most of these unexplained booms are heard in the Eastern United States but there have been some reported in California and elsewhere.

The most common explanation is supersonic aircraft, which create a pressure wave as they compress the air ahead of them. Yes, they are going so fast that the air literally can’t get out of the way in time and compresses into water vapor and creates a continuous cone of pressure around the craft that travels all the way down to earth. When this wave passes an unsuspecting ear far below it creates a dull thump or sometimes a very noticeable boom sound. The intensity depends on the distance of the aircraft to the listener.

Many of the booms heard along the eastern seaboard during the late 1970s were initially thought to be the result of a passing Concord jet just off the coast, headed from New York’s JFK to London’s Heathrow Airport. After figuring this was the likely cause authorities altered the flight path so the plane would produce its sonic boom farther out over the ocean instead of near land. Some booms persisted, though, and can’t be so easily locked down.

Dr. William Donn of the Lamont Doherty Geological Observatory in Palisades, NY, interviewed for the CBC special report, examined data collected from sensitive atmospheric sound monitoring stations and noticed that many of the booms took weekends off, as well as the Christmas holiday. Dr. Donn suspected that the booms, and lack there of during American holidays and weekend breaks, were the result of military activity. Could be.

Look oddball booms are one thing and they happen a lot, check out MysteryBooms.com for more information on that subject. There are a huge number of explanations for something like that: sonic booms, seismic activity, frost quake, a distant thunderstorm, a hair-raising explosion from some DIY MythBuster playing with gunpowder in his back yard, military activity, a blasting company fracturing a massive boulder nearby—I used to work for one, they don’t tell everyone in town about it—among other things.

But the booms along the east coast in December of 1977, as strange and mysterious as they were, were not related to the explosive event that occurred on Bell Island. At least I don’t think they were, but I could be wrong. For example, it is possible that the booms heard by some residents were actually thunder related to a storm far in the distance, but that wouldn’t have been audible in almost every state along the east coast.

So, what the hell happened on Bell Island that had folks thinking the world was coming to an end? After listening to the reports given in the CBCs news piece I did some research and pondering and to me the event sounds an awful lot like a massive lightning strike, with other associated electromagnetic effects. Let’s take a look at what those folks reported, and see what we can make of them.

First of all, these were not loony people. They were down to earth folks who witnessed something way out of the ordinary and had physical evidence to prove it. Everyone interviewed heard a sound they described as an explosion, or at least a big boom. A few witnesses described a massive concussion that rattled their homes. One woman exclaimed it was as if her house had been broken in two.

One gentleman witnessed “fire” as he called it, likely an electrical arc, blast about 18 inches out of an outlet above his kitchen table. Immediately after this discharge he heard a loud boom.

Other witnesses described similar events, some more extreme including TVs utterly destroyed by electrical overloads, burned out electric motors, and a report of a “ball of fire” flaring up in an oven, apparently passing through the glass.

So, what the hell can cause such strangeness and destruction? The electrical arc shooting out of the outlet and the fried TV set are telling. Having researched a huge lightning strike my wife and I experienced during an electrical storm which set off our smoke detector for a few seconds, it seems likely or at least possible that these particular disturbances were cause by something known as an EMP, or electromagnetic pulse. And in the case of the Bell Islanders it was a massive electromagnetic pulse because by comparison our smoke detector was intact and functioning after the incident we witnessed. And let me tell you, the crack of thunder we heard was enough to scare the living daylights out of us.

Elsewhere in the village a blast of some kind shot through buildings from one end to the other, a barn was essentially blown apart, and chickens on that same property were killed and had blood coming from their eyes and beaks. No scortching or burns were seen on the barn or chickens, so it was not a direct hit by lightning. Still, lightning could be the culprit, especially if it was a super bolt that found it’s way to Bell Island from a strong winter storm in the Labrador Sea.

Accoring to this article, How far away from a thunderstorm can lightning strike? at iWeather.com anvil lightning can strike more than 100 miles from a storm. That means it can appear to come out of nowhere, a so-called “bolt from the blue”. Indeed the longest recorded lightning distance was nearly 200 miles, as recorded in Oklahoma in 2007. Maybe that’s what happened here; a record breaking, long distance super bolt that was not recorded by weather monitoring stations at the time.

I did some serious poking around on the interwebs, because obvi I didn’t have anything else to do this weekend, but I could find no specific data on actual weather events on Bell Island or the surrounding area. However, according to this study published by the Journal of Physical Oceanography, typical storms that form in the Labrador Sea “occur more frequently in winter and spring, about one every 3 to 5 days…” and have a diameter of 500km, 310-ish miles.

Based on that information it is very possible, unbeknownst to Bell Islanders and others nearby, that a strong storm was churning somewhere in the sea north of Newfoundland and a rogue lightning bolt from said storm found its way to Bell Island, blasting holes in the ground and generating an EMP strong enough to shoot electrical arcs out of wall outlets and fry TVs as well as other equipment. A witness across the bay claims to have seen a “white streak” come down from the sky and strike on the island which, if her report is reliable, could have been the only visual confirmation of a super lightning bolt on that day. I’m not sure why the CBC reporter deemed that report unreliable.

Near the end of the news report, Geophysicist Dr. Thomas Gold had this to say to the CBC reporter, “It was a very strange phenomenon alright…” but added that there was “no hint of anything other than electrical phenomenon.” He concluded that it was an electrical discharge, stating, “a very unusual one, and enormous one.” What occurred on Bell Island is probably the most incredible example of a clear air super bolt of lightning from a powerful, distant winter storm.

A strike from super-lightning would also have created an incredible shockwave with potential to blow through buildings, rattle a barn apart and kill chickens within close proximity to the impact. Primary injuries associated with a blast event include ruptured eardrums, and damage to soft tissue and internal organs like the lungs, which could be the reason for the blood evidence on the chickens. So those poor chickens were too close to ground zero.

Holes in the ground? I was curious about that too, but yes, lightning can actually blast a hole in the ground. Here is photographic evidence of a 3 foot diameter hole in a golf course made by a lightning strike, a hole in runway tarmac, even a trench. Lightning can cause some interesting patterns in grass too.

Now what about the glowing ball of energy? Youngster Darrin Bickford was riding his bike when the blast occurred on Bell Island. He commented that he thought something was happening “with the world,” like a bomb attack or something. But after that he witnessed something very strange. He described seeing a ball of light, three feet in diameter, glowing mostly blue with orange around the edge, with sparks.

Ball lightning, though relatively rare, is an unexplained phenomenon associated with electrical storms or other electromagnetic disturbances. For example, ball lightning has been reported in association with seismic activity. Known as earthquake lights there are many theories but the exact mechanism that causes them is unknown.

The electrifying orbs sometimes seen in relation to lightning strikes or in the vicinity of electrical storms are more well known but, like earthquake lights, they aren’t well understood though many theories have been presented to explain them. They happen though, and they appear in various sizes and colors, sometimes with noisy pops or static sounds, sometimes completely silent. In the case of Bell Island that seems like the kind of phenomenon Darrin witnessed. A somehow charged ball of electricity glowing and sparking, floating in the air before him. It happens. There are a lot of things about nature that we don’t understand, but we’re learning.

Back in the late 80’s I saw something I’d describe as ball lightning. Two balls of light actually, late in the evening, floating slowly and silently, side by side just above the power lines. I watched them drift along, above the utility poles until they followed the guy wire on the last pole to ground and disappeared. One of the craziest things I had ever witnessed. I don’t recall any storm activity in my general vicinity, but I can’t say for sure that there wasn’t one in the area. Also, this was in New Jersey and there is very little seismic activity there.

The fact that they rode along the power lines could explain it. Maybe they were just some form of static discharge, like the old tale of the “Hooker Man” I used to hear as a kid. You’d see his lantern drifting down the railroad tracks late a night, apparently the result of some static electricity generated in the metal of the railway escaping into the air. Who knows?

Like the folks on Bell Island back in 1978, I know I saw something weird that I don’t completely understand. If a blast of lightning struck down, on a clear day, and no one saw it except for some lady across the bay, what would you think in that moment? Your just hanging out at your kitchen table and electricity shoots 18 inches out of the wall socket and you hear a massive boom, eh? Your TV burns up. A barn is blasted apart clean of any telltale burn marks. Your chickens are killed by some unseen force, and a kid down the street sees a floating, glowing ball of sparking light. Not to mention the huge holes and marks blasted into the snowy ground nearby.

Lightning is crazy stuff, we know it happens, but happens mostly when there’s a storm around. No storm? No lightning, right? Nope. It can happen and has happened. As I mentioned lightning has struck nearly 200 miles from it’s origin in a storm. Make it a super lightning bolt, 100 times more powerful than your run-of-the-mill lightning, and you have a massively crazy thing happening right there.

So I agree with Dr. Gold on this one: basically a ginormous, freak bolt of lightning from a storm far away. It caught everyone off guard. Nature will continue to play tricks on us, so stay alert my friends. It’s been forty-one years, maybe we’re due. You never know when or where that next super bolt-from-the blue is going to strike.

Travis Walton UFO Incident Reflux

UFO hovering over highway

In keeping with a theme which began last month, the “What Didn’t Happen this Month in Paranormal History” series, I bring you this gem from November of 1975…

The Travis Walton UFO Incident, er… Experience, er… Abduction, er… story, or whatever it was.

The story, and it is a good one, is that on November 5, 1975, Travis Walton and his fellow crew members were clearing brush and dead trees in an area of the Apache-Stigreaves National Forest, not far from the town of Heber, Arizona. They had worked late into the evening and were driving out of the area in a crew-cab pickup truck when they noticed a glowing light filtering through the trees. They approached an area where they were able to observe the source of the light and saw an object hovering in a clearing.

The driver, crew mate Ken Peterson, started to pull away but Travis had allegedly exited the vehicle and walked toward the light as the others watched. They described an object about fifteen to twenty feet in diameter and ten feet high, hovering about fifteen feet off of the ground.

Recounting the event for a documentary entitled Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton, Travis claimed to hear a persistent “alternating” frequency with very high and very low, rumbling frequencies as well; a sound that Walton claimed “Carried real well”. Ken Peterson described a similar loud sound which he also claimed to feel through low frequency vibrations in the vehicle. Another crew member, John Goulette, referred to the sound simply as “a beep.” That’s a little bit not the same.

Travis Walton Abduction Sketch

Peterson saw “a blue light hit Travis” after which, he stated, Travis fell over sideways. Goulette claims that he had turned and was looking in the other direction when this happened, but says he saw a bright bluish-green light illuminate the surrounding forest, then turned to see Travis raised up a foot or two off of the ground and held there in the light with his arms and legs outstretched before finally dropping to the ground, a crumpled and apparently lifeless form.

Other crew members allege that Travis was more or less blasted off of his feet by the impact of the beam, or electrical charge, or whatever it was, and not necessarily suspended in the air for any length of time.

In an apparent panic Peterson hit the gas and drove the truck out of the area but after a short distance they decided to turn around and go back to help Travis.

Upon returning to the location they found that Travis was gone. They searched for fifteen minutes but found no trace of Travis or the UFO. On their way to nearby Heber they called the police. Debuty Sheriff Chuck Ellison met with the boys initially, and alerted County Sheriff Marlin Gillespie who organized a search for the missing 22 year old Walton. The boys were held but not under arrest, and early suspicions were that they had murdered their crew mate.

Interviewed for the documentary, Ellison recalls the boys “stomping around” and commented that “a couple of them were crying.” He said he tried to get as close as he could to each one to determine if alcohol or marijuana had been involved but did not detect any use.

Five days passed with no progress in the search, and the boys all stuck to their story. On November 10 Travis made a phone call from a phone booth in Heber, Arizona, and was picked up by his brother then brought home.

The rest is UFO abduction history. It’s a fun story, but is it real? I doubt it. Based on my cursory examination of various bits of info available online, and my bunk-senses, there are many things that just don’t add up. Inconsistencies in the story are revealed through various newspaper articles. The abduction scenario changes and grows more elaborate in subsequent tellings. Early on Travis described your run-of-the-mill UFO abduction scenario, but in a later statement he claims to have piloted the UFO. Later still, instead of just one kind of alien he encounters bald headed beings, who he heroically battles, and then encounters a more humanoid alien. His story changed and was embellished.

In one report Walton’s friend and crew boss Mike Rogers is said to have been driving the truck, and that is how it presented in the movie, however in the documentary mentioned above it is indicated that Ken Peterson was the driver. That could be just a simple case of misreporting, but the rest just seems like a story getting worse.

UFO investigators who arrived during the period when Travis was missing and interviewed the witnesses, and Travis’ mother, noticed inconsistencies. When they prodded with more questions to get more information the stories began to unravel. Those Ufologists, and anyone else who seemed to doubt the story, were not allowed any further access to the witnesses. Only those who believed and were supporting the story were permitted.

To me this reeks of a con. According to those shunned UFO investigators Travis and his close family had an apparent history of UFO interest and experiences, claiming numerous sightings. His mother also seemed unfazed by the disappearance of her son. Stating, “That’s how these things happen…”

As I watched the documentary it seemed that they were trying to convince the viewer of the validity of the story. The last portion of the film centered on Walton and others bashing the late Phillip J. Klass, a popular debunker of UFO sightings and abduction claims. It’s common for someone with dubious claims to lash out when confronted with contradicting information; Christians hate atheists, Bigfooters hate anyone who criticizes their monster-in-the-woods, and UFO believers hate UFO debunkers. I’d hate it if someone kept pointing out facts that contradicted my tall tale too.

Klass suggested that Mike Rogers and Travis Walton concocted the scheme in order to get Rogers out of the contract he had with the U.S. Forest Service because he was seriously behind schedule to complete the acreage he had agreed to tend. He had already received a penalty and an extension for missing the first deadline, and was about to miss the extended deadline. The idea was that if the crew were too afraid to return to work because of the UFO then Roger’s could get out of the contract due to an “Act of God” but still receive his full contract amount. I wonder how that worked out? Because he damn sure didn’t finish the job after all the hubbub about this alleged event hit the press.

Maybe the young twenty-somethings weren’t thinking, and just wanted to make a few bucks and move on. They were paid $5000 by National Enquirer for the story. Travis got a check for $2500 and the remainder was divided among the rest of the crew. $5,000 was a lot of dinero back in 1975, nearly $24,000 in todays economy. Once you stake a claim in UFO land you have to ride that puppy though. Can’t turn back or you reveal yourself as a fraud.

Travis continued, continues, to profit from his story. He wrote a book about his alleged experience in 1998, later revised and re-released as Fire in the Sky, which was later made into a movie of the same name. He tried his hand at an annual UFO convention of sorts with the SkyFire Summit, but it was short-lived with only one event each in 2014 and 2015. Walton continues to make appearances, paid of course, at other UFO related conventions, radio shows, TV appearances and other events, not to mention the 2015 documentary.

Toward the end of the documentary Travis is talking with a friend as they stroll through the woods, apparently near where the alleged event took place, and Travis posits yet another possibility: Maybe the aliens zapped him by mistake and didn’t mean to hurt him so they took him abord the UFO to fix him up, returning him to earth five days later when he was fully recovered. That’s a cute idea, but it completely contradicts his story in which he battled the aliens. Just more smoke to fog things up. A continuously changing story that still resonates with true UFO believers regardless of how outlandish or inconsistent it is, or may become.

That’s all for now my friends. Keep your eyes on the skies! I might be a skeptic but damn I wish this stuff was for real.

References:
Sheaffer, R (Revised August 5, 2016) Skeptical Information on the Travis Walton “UFO Abduction” Story. Retrieved from https://debunker.com/texts/walton.html

Jen Stein (Producer/Director). (2015). Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HNJLDYY

Wikipedia: Travis Walton UFO Incident – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travis_Walton_UFO_incident

Wikipedia: Phillip J. Klass – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_J._Klass