Mysterious fireballs have been witnessed all over the world. They have both puzzled and terrified people at sea, in the air, and on the ground. The bizarre, burning spheres have ‘invaded’ people’s homes, often leaving a trail of damage in their wake. Yet, even after countless sightings occurring over hundreds of years, experts still cannot explain the nature or cause of the phenomenon — nor even agree as to whether it really exists.
For two days His Britannic Majesty’s sailing ship Montague had been tossed on an angry sea and pelted by rain and hail. At ten minutes before noon on the second day the vessel was rocking three miles off The Lizard — England’s most southerly point — when seaman John Chalmers was ordered to take an observation from the quarterdeck. “Look to the windward,” shouted a quartermaster. Chalmers raised the telescope, peered out to sea, and witnessed a sight he was never to forget for the rest of his adventurous life in the navy.
Three miles distant, hovering on the surface of the water, was a large ball of blue fire. It bobbed terrifyingly on the wavescrests and was rolling, remorselessly in the direction of the ship.
On board there was confusion and fear as panicky orders were bawled. But before the men could raise additional sail, the fireball, ‘as big as a milstone’, was within 30 yards of the ship. Then it rose and exploded with a sound ‘like hundreds of cannon’. Five men were felled by the blast and one was badly burned by the intense heat.
Chalmers and his mates looked up. They saw their main topmast shattered into more than a hundred fragments, and the mainmast split to the heel. The explosion had also plucked out spikes that had been nailed into the mainmast, and driven them into the deck with such force that the carpenter had to lever them out with a crowbar. And all around there was a smell of brimstone.
The fireball that almost wrecked the Montague in 1749 was one of nature’s most mysterious phenomenon. For generations incidents involving these eerie, luminous spheres have been reported by reliable witnesses all over the world. Usually they are often dubbed ‘ball lightening’. But there is no scientist today who can vouch for the accuracy of that description. For, despite investigations over the centuries, the nature and the cause of ball lightening remains unknown. The Montague incident was not the only example of a seagoing fireball. In 1881, a ship was sailing to Valparaise in a heavy snow storm when a glowing ball dropped into the water a couple of yards from the vessel. A horrifying explosion was followed by the sound of muffled thunder. For several minutes the two men at the helm were blinded, and two sailors on the foredeck were thrown on their backs.
In the heart of a thunderstorm in 1878, a rose-pink ball of fire appeared out of nowhere and dropped slowly onto the deck of a large yacht moored at Southampton, the English port. It exploded, knocking a man down and, like a demonic poltergeist, shifted pots and pans in the cook’s galley below. Afterward the forward deck was seen shinning with what was described as a ‘bright confused light’.
A number of cases of fireballs in aircraft have also been reported. In the late summer of 1938 the captain of a BOAC flying boat en route for Iraq was flying through dense cloud over France at 8,500 feet when he opened his cockpit window to improve his visibility. Through the window floated a ball of fire which burned off his eyebrows and some of his hair. It also burned a hole in his safety belt and dispatch case before drifting into the passenger cabin, where it exploded. By an uncanny coincidence, a hotel in Marseilles where the passengers had booked rooms for the night was struck by a thunderbolt at the same time and burned down.
Ten years later a TWA airliner was flying from Paris to Cairo at about 10,000 feet through a very cloudy region, when a bump was felt under the cabin. A passenger looked out of a porthole and saw an orange-yellow fireball with a short tail, traveling at the same speed as the plane. It burst one foot from the side of the cabin, giving off a bright ray as it did so. The same year a large fireball in a cloudy sky was credited with the complete destruction of a fighter plane.
When a fist-sized fireball struck a Soviet aircraft over Irkutsk in 1959 it jarred the plane and melted port side rivets. It also magnetized the pilot’s cabin, and caused a 100 degree error in the radio-compass.
If anything, the manifestation of a fireball on dry land is even more frightening. When a ball floated through an upstairs window of a log house in Wisconsin in 1888 it floated down the hall and appeared to pursue the servant girl who ran from it screaming until it vanished through another window. Another American fireball disturbed a man taking a shower. After hearing a clap of thunder he saw the ball float through a window screen and drift past him at waist height, giving off the odor of ozone.
In Sweden a family of six were seated round their dining-room table when a shining white ball appeared, floated over their supper plates, and then, with a bright flash, exploded. The diners were thrown against the backs of their chairs, and for some time afterward felt, curiously, as through they had been lamed, though they were, in fact, uninjured.
During a storm in Karachi, a fireball exploded with a sound like thunder inside a house, leaving one victim with a sharp pain in his face and another with an arm that quivered uncontrollably. In another room of the same house, the ball smashed a rifle in its case, and left a hole where the gun had been leaning against the wall.
Witnesses have given a fascinating variety of descriptions of the fireballs they have seen. A German scientist who watched one through a house window compared it to a car headlight. After hearing a hissing sound from an open window, a Swiss clerk looked up from his desk to see a fireball above him; it went by him, he said, like a rocket. And many people who saw a large red ball floating over the streets of Paris in 1849 admitted later that they at first through it was an ascending balloon.
Many fireballs have been seen traveling along power lines. During a storm in France a large fireball was observed on an iron tower supporting a telegraph wire on top of a house. Suddenly the ball split into three small globes, each the size of a child’s balloon. The balls rolled along the roof, till they reached the rain gutter, where they vanished.
A caller waiting for a telephone connection in Martinique heard ‘a strident noise’ in the earpiece. He had just started to put the phone down in irritation when he saw a fireball moving along the telephone wire and glowing as brightly as an electric lamp. When it reached the receiver there was a detonation ‘like a small cannon’ accompanied by a blinding light. The caller was momentarily stunned. Later he found that the telephone had been completely burned out.
In the middle of a violent storm in 1906 a Swiss stationmaster saw green, sparkling, egg-sized globes riding the electric wires overhead toward the mountains. They disappeared in the distance, only to reappear after a short time, moving along very slowly in the same direction.
While some fireballs have caused both serious damage and death, others have scarcely injured the people they have touched. A German child who kicked a fireball was killed, while his toys were hurled around him by the explosion. But two French children were luckier. They were standing in the doorway of a stable housing 25 cattle when, suddenly, an apple-sized fireball rolled down from a treetop, branch by branch, reached the ground, picked its way among pools of water and finally approached the doorway… There was a shattering explosion that shook the stable walls. The two boys were thrown to the ground without being hurt, but 11 of the animals inside the stable were killed.
One summer evening a woman in Smethwick, England, was working in her kitchen when a sphere of blue light surrounded by a flame-colored halo appeared over her cooker and began moving straight toward her. She felt its heat and a smell of burning, and, simultaneously, heard a rattling sound. “The ball,” she later related, “seemed to hit me below the belt. I automatically brushed it from me, and it just disappeared. On my left hand — on the spot which had touched the ball — a redness and swelling appeared, and my gold wedding ring seemed to be burning into my finger. The fireball also damaged my clothes. I found holes in my dress and my tights. Though my legs weren’t burned, they became red and numb.”
What might be the strangest case of surviving an encounter with a fireball occurred one day in 1904 when a German engineer and his wife were walking through a storm of wind, snow and hail. Suddenly they both saw a large bright ball some 12 feet in diameter. It sank through the telephone wires, which gave off a glow, and then, horrifyingly, completely enveloped the couple. They now found themselves standing in a thick white sea of light, but with no sensations of heat or odor. They felt no breeze from the motion of the ball, and they could not even feel the still-blowing wind (it was almost as if the fireball was protecting them from the elements). They could see only the pebbles on the road on which they stood. As for the man’s lighted cigar, the ball had no effect whatsoever on the way it was burning.
In a matter of moments, the ball slid across the road, leaving the couple behind. It appeared to rise before vanishing into the storm. During the four seconds in which it had been in view it had traveled some 50 yards.
Hiss, Whistle, Ring
Fireballs have been seen spinning like tops, entering houses down chimneys and through keyholes, and emerging from the funnels of tornadoes, hurricanes and water-spouts. They are alleged to have hissed, whistled, set doorbells ringing, fallen into tubs of water which promptly started boiling, and, in one instance, to have circled around and around a girl, spiral-fashion.
The balls are usually red, but some have been seen colored yellow, white, blue and green. They have varied from the size of a pea to that of a parasol. Some have traveled with, some against the wind.
While in motion they may disconcertingly change course, or they may just come to a halt and stand still. One British professor remembers that during his childhood the windows of his home were left open during thunderstorms so that fireballs, if they appeared, could find their way out again. Another academic has recalled that when he was a boy the windows of his home were kept closed during storms to prevent drafts drawing the fireballs inside the in the first place.
The earliest description of ball lightening is found in the works of St. Gregory of Tours. In the 6th century a fireball of blinding brightness appeared over a procession of religious and civic dignitaries of Tours during the dedication of a chapel. The sight was so awesome that everybody in the processions threw themselves to the ground.
It was understandable that, in a non-scientific age, people should consider fireballs to be some supernatural manifestation. An entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the 793 describes a heavy storm in which ‘fire dragons’ were seen together with intense lightening.
In memoirs of the period, an ‘oscillating flame’ was reported to have entered the bedchamber of Diane of France, the illegitimate daughter of Henri II, on her wedding night in 1557. It “went from corner to corner, and finally to the nuptial bed, where it burnt Diane’s hair and night attire. It did them no other harm, but their terror can be imagined.”
Doubters occasionally claim that reported fireballs were, in fact, meteors. One argument against this is that meteors move in a straight line, while the fireball usually glides in a curve. Anyway, fireballs generally appear during storms, with which meteors have no connection.
One 18th century theory was that fireballs were not electrical phenomena but an agglomeration of inflammable materials descended from the upper atmosphere. A century later they were said to be constituted of cosmic dust impregnated with combustible gas and mixed with ice crystals. More recently it was suggested they were caused by nuclear reactions in atoms of the atmospheric gases. One investigator has ascribed most fireballs to dust (especially volcanic dust clouds) activated and circulated by storms. Another has suggested they are electrically charged bubbles, and investigative scientists have in fact conducted experiments with helium-filled soap bubbles.
Possible causes of the phenomenon listed recently have included air or gas behaving abnormally, high density plasma (a state of matter consisting entirely of negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions), air vortexes containing luminous gases, and microwave radiation within a plasma shell.
But the mystery remains. And while the scientists carry on with their experiments they continue to study the literature on the fireball, seeking what may be an all too elusive clue to the solution of this weird enigma. There is no shortage of tales, some of them not only inexplicable but verging on the ghostly. Consider this authenticated story, told by the French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, who died half a century ago. One day seven women sheltering in a doorway from a storm were knocked unconscious by a fireball that accompanied a thunderclap. Ten yards away, in a neighboring house, a young woman was working at her sewing machine. At the moment of the thunderclap she felt a violent shock through her whole body, and a fierce burning sensation in the hollow of her back. Afterward it was discovered that she had been badly scorched between the shoulder blades. Her legs also had burns.
Yet in her room no trace was ever found of the passing of the fireball. Not on the ceiling, not on the floor, not on the walls. “There was absolutely nothing,” wrote Flammarion, “to show how the electric fluid could have made its way in from the spot in which the fireball had exploded in the neighboring house, separated from it by two thick walls.”
The incident made Flammarion ponder: Could a fireball somehow dissolve into a sort of vapor which could pass like a specter form one place to another?
The shades of our ancestors must be smiling wryly to themselves. They believed fireballs to be supernatural apparitions. Maybe, in one sense, they weren’t all that far off the mark.