Summary: Dec. 9, 1965. A day that will live in incongruity. That was the late afternoon when something -- or nothing -- shot from the heavens over this south edge of Westmoreland County and landed -- or didn't -- in a gully a mile outside of town.
KECKSBURG, Pa. -- Dec. 9, 1965. A day that will live in incongruity.
That was the late afternoon when something -- or nothing -- shot from the heavens over this south edge of Westmoreland County and landed -- or didn't -- in a gully a mile outside of town.
Really. It came down, an acorn-shaped something a size up from a Volkswagen Beetle, some insist.
Bunk, say others.
In the intervening 37 years, the dispute busted up a few friendships. Even now, pair Kecksburg and UFO in a sentence and it kick-starts a back-and-forth, said Kathy Leeper, bartender at the local firefighters club.
"They were talking about it just the other night," she said.
So, now come UFO sleuths, figuring to settle this by getting as much of the public behind them as they can and demanding a look at the record.
Except that key elements of the record, if there is much of one, may be locked away in government files. And the UFO sleuths, a coalition of cash, legal expertise and ardor for probing the supernormal, figure that getting at it will take a major petition drive, a congressional investigation and maybe some legal muscle.
"This case is so incredibly fascinating," said Leslie Kean, a San Francisco-area freelance journalist whose writing on UFOs appeared from opinion pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to news pages of the Boston Globe. "Even now, the trail is not cold."
For years, retiree Robert Bitner, former Kecksburg fire chief, a man who believes that something noteworthy fell from the sky, hasn't spoken with his brother-in-law. He maintains only a nodding acquaintance with neighbor and fellow ex-fire chief Ed Myers. It's a cold war born of the UFO dispute.
"I'd love to know what the government knows about it," Bitner said. "It might help us end this thing for good."
That's end, not forget.
The Roswell of Pa.
What looks like a Bunyanesque brown acorn perched on a platform next to the fire hall is actually a 7-foot replica of what believers say they saw -- modeled a dozen years ago for the television show "Unsolved Mysteries," then put on permanent display here.
North of town, the twisting township route closest to the purported crash site has been renamed Meteor Road.
The records hunt begins with a newly launched online petition drive, at www.signpetition.com, to persuade Congress to put its General Accounting Office on the case, a gambit that Kean said might shake lose records that the general public hasn't seen.
Then, through a law firm doing freedom-of-information work, the coalition would sue where it felt government agencies shortchanged requests for declassified files on Kecksburg.
The drive is being bankrolled by television's SciFi Channel, where fare ranges from "The Twilight Zone" reruns to the ultimate vision of the American melting pot, a serial about space aliens blending in with the Roswell, N.M., locals.
This isn't about Kecksburg's promotional value to SciFi, channel Special Projects Director Larry Landsman vowed. "We're committed to solving this," he said.
Along with reporter Kean, the records hunt includes Greensburg resident Stan Gordon, 53, an electronics salesman and, since age 16, gumshoe tracking the unexplained.
Gordon's pursuit of enigmas ranging from UFOs to Bigfoot, detailed at his Web site, www.westol.com/~paufo/, brings 200 e-mails a day and "phone calls at 2, 3, 4 in the morning," he said. His Kecksburg inquiry, begun when he was a teenager, has yielded reams of files and produced a 92-minute, $25 videotape, "Kecksburg: The Untold Story," a 1998 production bearing the tag line "New Mexico has Roswell, but in Pennsylvania it was Kecksburg."
Sales, he said, "have been in the hundreds."
"I keep an open mind," said Gordon, who recites Kecksburg particulars with edge-of-his-seat urgency, " ... but something of military importance seems to have fallen."
He has critics.
Between me and trees
Ed Myers, fire chief in 1965, complains that Gordon "turned this into a circus." And Bob Young, an amateur astronomer who lectures at the state planetarium in Harrisburg and studied the Kecksburg puzzle, said people who insist that something slammed down outside town ignored hard evidence that the matter was much ado about a meteor that came nowhere close.
But the UFO case also has people dropping tantalizing hints.
Retiree Bob Schmidt, an amateur astronomer in Pittsburgh's North Hills, tells of a friend, wary of reporters, who worked with NASA and had associates who said they examined debris retrieved from Kecksburg.
"They said it looks very much like a Russian nose cone," Schmidt said.
Around Kecksburg, 300-some people strong, that's the talk that rumpuses are made of.
On that dreary 1965 afternoon, the episode began in a flash -- a "brilliant fireball" lighting the dusk sky, according to the next morning's Post-Gazette.
It was meteor, photographed by at least a couple earthlings, visible from Chicago to New York State to Virginia, astronomers Von Del Chamberlain and David Krause of Michigan State University wrote in a paper published 20 months later by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
The space rock burst and vanished 15 miles southeast of Windsor, Ontario, but not before fooling spectators as it streaked into the horizon, Chamberlain wrote.
"Observers in several states were certain the object landed within a mile from them," he wrote in a follow-up paper for the state of Michigan's Geological Survey.
"Individuals often report: 'It definitely went between me and the nearby trees.' "
Actually, it did, says Bill Bulebush.
'Big, huge piece of metal'
Bulebush, 40 then, was home just outside Kecksburg, tinkering with his 1964 Corvair.
He saw the flaming whatever-it-was fly over, then double back "just like it was controlled," he said last week.
And when he watched it go down just north of town, Bulebush said, he drove off after it, up what's now Meteor Road.
There, maybe a quarter-mile into the woods, lay this thing -- burnt orange, maybe 10 feet long, shaped like an acorn, he said.
"It was smoldering and cracking, sparks coming off it ... no sign of life, with a sour smell, sort of like sulfur," Bulebush said.
It was half-buried, after tearing a trench into the ground with a belly-flop landing, he said.
"I went down and stood behind a tree and watched it ... 10 feet away," he said.
And when he heard people tramping through the woods, he said, he got scared and hightailed back home -- where wife, Betty Bulebush, concedes she met the story with enough lack of interest that "I kept watching TV."
James Romansky, now 57 and a disabled machinist living near Derry, insists he came upon it, too, as a volunteer firefighter, called from Lloydsville, 25 miles from Kecksburg, to comb woods for what was supposed to be a crashed plane.
In the flashlight beams, he said, he and a handful of searchers saw "one big, huge piece of metal buried in the mud ... goldish, copperish, yellow, quiet as a church mouse."
The wreckage bore markings Romansky likens to hieroglyphics. Nobody touched it.
"I'm running around, looking for bodies and scratching my head and my butt because there aren't any," Romansky said. "There's no loose pieces. This thing has no rivets, no portals, no way to get in and out."
Out of the dark came "two guys with crewcuts and trench coats," Romansky said. "And they said, 'This is quarantined. You get the hell out,' very loud and very adamant."
Then-Fire Chief Ed Myers' response, in a word: hooey.
"Afterward, there was no sign of it," he said. "There wasn't so much as a bird spot."
People who figure that something indeed hit the ground suggested origins ranging from extraterrestrials to a misfired NIKE missile to a remnant of Kosmos 96, a Soviet probe that was bound for Venus but, according to U.S. Space Command, crashed in Canada 14 hours earlier.
Like to get it resolved
No matter what the case, reporter Kean said, the case is ripe for investigation because it has living witnesses who saw something on the ground and three decades worth of evidence rounded up by Gordon.
"It's a very good case," she said.
Except that in Kecksburg, even what happened in plain sight is open to dispute.
U.S. Air Force documents tell of a three-man team coming from its Oakdale radar station, finding nothing and heading home in early morning.
Retired firefighter Bitner recalls seeing "a dozen" military men.
Carl Porch, whose farmland sits nearby, says there barely were any.
"There were all kind of military people," said Robert Gatty, now publishing a trade magazine in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, then a reporter with the Tribune-Review in Greensburg. "I couldn't get past them."
"And the government didn't send all them out because of some shooting star," Bitner said.
By Romansky's account, the military trucked out its find under tarp, on a flatbed truck, and commandeered the fire hall as a command post, stationing armed guards who turned him away when he tried to use the restroom.
Myers' response: More hooey. The firehouse was open and people jammed the social club, he said.
"We probably sold as much beer as we ever did because of all the people," he said.
So it goes. Storytellers question each others' credibility. Critics who turned up a criminal past that included theft and armed robbery scoff at Romansky's believability. Gordon defends him for offering corroborated detail. Allegations simmer of people massaging stories over the years.
If townspeople figure that the new push to open records will settle this, though, a spokesman for Kecksburg's congressman offers little hope. If there are files locked away and the government justified sealing them, said Brad Clemenson, aide to Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, GAO probably won't find a rationale to unseal them.
That's not what a lot of people want to hear.
"This thing dies off, then it comes up," current Fire Chief Duane Hutter said. "Everybody'd like it if we got it resolved."