MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – The downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon just off South Carolina’s coast created a spectacle over one of the state’s tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheers.
The balloon was struck by a missile from an F-22 fighter just off Myrtle Beach on Saturday, fascinating sky-watchers across a populous area known as the Grand Strand for its miles of beaches that draw retirees and vacationers. Crowds gathered in neighborhoods, hotel parking lots and beaches to watch the balloon hover, with some cheering just after it went down.
The festive mood belied the seriousness of the situation, with law enforcement around the county of 366,000 warning people not to touch any debris and to instead call dispatchers.
“Members of the US Military are coordinating to collect debris; however, fragments may make it to the coastline,” the Horry County Police Department said in a statement.
Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, just inland of Myrtle Beach when she saw her neighbors gathered outside. Curious, she went to see what they were looking at. It was easy to spot the balloon in the cloudless blue sky, and what appeared to be fighter jets circling overhead. After the strike, she could see the balloon start to come apart and fall from the sky.
“I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she said.
The balloon hovered directly above the Hardy family as they checked into their oceanfront hotel in Myrtle Beach. The family from Anderson joined several employees in the parking lot taking videos of the scene unfolding above before going up to their room ahead of the missile strike.
Logan Hardy, 12, said the moment of impact generated a “boom” that shook the building. His room’s balcony gave the middle-schooler a clear view of the debris dropping.
“It looked like stars falling down,” he said, adding: “I will never forget this day.”
Some watchers rushed to nearby beaches as the balloon approached the ocean. Travis Huffstetler, who captured photos of the balloon, said the packed Garden City Beach almost looked like summertime on the chilly winter day.
When the balloon began crossing the water, Mark Doss, 54, drove a golf cart three blocks down from his home to Garden City Beach. There, Doss said he and his two teenage children spent 90 minutes watching the strike and waiting in vain for debris to wash ashore.
The sheer size of the white orb awed Doss, who said the approaching fighter jet looked like a model airplane. Doss recalled a “white puff of smoke” after the missile struck the balloon.
“That one jet made a beeline straight to it — wham!” Doss said.
Life continued uninterrupted for many others into the evening. Doss described the spectacle from a biker bar. There, Saturday night thrill seekers gathered like normal as if international tensions had not played out hours earlier 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) above them. A cover band performed while people shot pool and huddled around patio heaters. Along the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk, nightlife staff went unbothered by the day’s events. Others waiting in line outside a club had completely missed the news.
But the severity of the growing diplomatic turmoil was not lost on Doss. He lamented the stress the events placed on his two teenage children, whose exposure to such sights had previously only come through the big screen.
State Sen. Greg Hembree of Horry, who represents the area in the South Carolina General Assembly, watched the strike from his neighbor's backyard.
The sight was both impressive and “a little bit scary" for Hembree, who said Americans typically expect such images to come from other countries.
“It was stunning,” Hembree said. “You don't ever think you're going to see a live engagement with an adversary in sort of a military context.”
The ensuing debris spread across roughly seven miles (11 kilometers) and landed in 47 feet (14 meters) of water, shallower than officials had expected.
The next day, Brady Deal set out to go fishing, but ended up capturing video of what might have been a portion of the shot-down balloon being brought to shore in South Carolina. A Pentagon spokesperson asked about the footage declined to comment Sunday.
Deal said he saw Navy personnel arriving at the Johnny Causey Boat Landing in North Myrtle Beach with what appeared to be a white, deflated balloon across the bows of two different boats. A third boat appeared to have a crane and boxes on it.
“I was just in the right place at the right time and I thought it was pretty cool,” said Deal, a North Myrtle Beach construction worker.
On Saturday, Deal posted a live video on social media when the balloon was shot down.
On Sunday, “when I went over there and I saw the Navy boats, I was like, ‘Well, I guess they’re going to bring them back in today.’ So we went back over there and we hit it at the right time.”
As a federal operation to recover the debris continued, life in the beach town largely returned to normal.
About a dozen people strolled along Surfside Beach on the rainy, foggy morning. One couple spotted a ship in the distance through binoculars. A nearby bakery brands the area as “The Family Beach.” Locals described the town as typically quiet, save for the hullabaloo the previous day's hullabaloo.
For Sandy and Bob Grubb, the balloon situation was not in the travel itinerary. The retired couple from Lebanon, Pennsylvania has been vacationing there for over 30 years. The two said they had been joking about the prospect of washed-up debris as they collected sea shells on their Sunday morning walk.
“It's a quite peaceful place — gave us some excitement,” Sandy Grubb said, laughing. “Not the kind of excitement you need.”
Associated Press Writer John Raby reported from Charleston, W.Va. James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.