By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
Even as late as the weekend of March 11, personnel from a TV station in California had come to the Midwest to interview as many of the witnesses as they could muster. "The phone's been ringing off the hook ever since," says Ed Barton. "And I've had people tell me I was lucky to see it and so on, and I think, 'Ah, if they only knew.'"
The publicity has made some of the witnesses celebrities in their own towns. Kathy Floyd, Noll's girlfriend, says they can't even go out for a cup of coffee anymore without townsfolk approaching, rather shyly at first, then asking questions, generally the same ones: What was it like? What does he think it was? Was he scared? "Every place you go, they want to talk about it," says Floyd. "We were in Hardee's for an hour-and-a-half the other night, just answering questions. Mel's not tired of it. His story's always the same, and that's one of the reasons people believe him."
The clerk at the Gas N' Grab on Millstadt's main street says the March 7 edition of the National Examiner, the one with the story about the Metro East UFO featuring Millstadt's own Officer Craig Stevens -- big picture of him in uniform and all -- was pretty much snapped up the day it came out. Everybody in this town of 2,700 knows about the UFO; it's hard to not know when you have TV vans with unfamiliar call letters on the sides running around town, not to mention reporters and photographers pestering the citizenry. Some, such as the stocky counterman at Hardy Feed & Grain, refuse to offer comment on the UFO affair -- too controversial -- whereas others, such as librarian Sue Hucke, warm to the topic. "This is a German community," she explains. "We take things with a grain of salt -- anybody who said anything about it did so with a smile on their face. I doubt that anybody here thinks there's anything to worry about."
And there will always be someone to try to make a buck on anything. Over at Mertz Ford, also on the main street, a few little-green-men blowups are still sitting in the windows of the dealership. They first appeared about a week after the sightings. "That was my wife's idea," says Don Mertz. "We got a lot of action out of these guys -- must've given away 20 or 30 of them. Buy a car, get an alien. The great thing is," he grins, "they only cost a couple bucks apiece."
Even the authorities have been swept up in the wave of interest in the sightings. When Lt. Frank Szewczyk of the Millstadt PD is asked to comment on the publicity, which seems to be building rather than dying down, he blurts, "I'm really pissed at Stevens," emphasizing "pissed." It initially seems that he's angry with his subordinate for dragging the department and the town through the muck of notoriety -- Millstadt was, after all, the department that spurned advances by the East Coast media -- but appearances deceive: "I'm really pissed at Stevens," he repeats, deadpan, "for not calling me that morning and waking me up."
Whereas the tabloids and radio talk shows played up the story, emphasizing the more lurid elements -- the monstrous craft hovering motionless over the puny awestruck earthlings below as if scrutinizing them -- John Velier lived up to his promise to employ sound judgment and empirical data in trying to arrive at a plausible explanation. By the end of January, two theories had been advanced on the NIDS Web site: the B-2 and Aereon hypotheses.
The first theory assumes the presence of a B-2 Spirit bomber that night. The general outline of the B-2 fits the arrowhead or triangular shape reported by most witnesses, and the wingspan of the aircraft is 172 feet, more than half "the size of a football field." The speed of a B-2 varies greatly, and with its flaps down it can fly quite slowly. Further, the B-2 has three lights that are retracted when the plane is put into stealth mode. The bug in this theory is that Whiteman Air Force Base, 200 miles west of St. Louis, is the only B-2 base in the country. A check of the flight records at the 509th Wing at Whiteman AFB by NIDS researchers indicates that no B-2s were flying at the time of the sightings.
The Aereon hypothesis was spawned when Craig Stevens verified that the craft he observed bore a resemblance to a picture found on the Internet. The picture was an artist's impression of a "stealth blimp" published in the September 1999 issue of Popular Mechanics. (In fact, Stevens made a sketch of what he saw that very day, a sketch that, coincidentally, looks like the stealth blimp, though at the time he had no idea such a thing existed.) The stealth blimp -- actually a revolutionary hybrid of a conventional airplane and a lighter-than-air dirigible (and the subject of John McPhee's 1973 book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed) -- was tested, flown and patented by the Aereon Corp. of Princeton, N.J., in 1970. That prototype was but 26 feet long, though at the time the company envisioned 800-foot Aereons, floating freighters, for use in both the military and civilian sectors.