Historic eclipse turns day into night across US

South Carolina draws people from Florida, around world to view eclipse

By Rebecca Barry - Meteorologist , Scott Johnson - Reporter , Marcia Dunn, AP aerospace writer

SANTEE, S.C. - Millions of Americans gazed in wonder through telescopes, cameras and disposable protective glasses Monday as the moon blotted out the sun in the first full-blown solar eclipse to sweep the U.S. from coast to coast in nearly a century.

The temperature dropped, birds quieted down, crickets chirped and the stars came out in the middle of the day as the line of darkness raced 2,600 miles across the continent in about 90 minutes, bringing forth oohs, aahs, shouts and screams."I thought it was great," Eun Lee said after seeing totality in Santee, South Carolina. "I’m so glad we drove up for the total eclipse. It was so beautiful, that ring.

The path of totality passed through 14 states, entering near Lincoln City, Oregon, at 1:16 p.m. EDT, moving over Casper, Wyoming; Carbondale, Illinois; and Nashville, Tennessee, and then exiting near Charleston, South Carolina, at 2:47 p.m. EDT.

"It's just something that's really cool. Get bragging rights (to) say, 'I saw that,'" said Larry Nielsen, a Florida resident who traveled to South Carolina. "I'm a geek, obviously. I made my reservations last March."

Cheers went up in Santee, where News4Jax joined dozens of northeast residents -- some there to play a golf tournament during the eclipse.

"I think the old people have the time off and the young people are going with their grandparents to see the eclipse," John Gressard said of the mix of people in the field next to a hotel off I-95. "The parents are staying home and working."

The moon hasn't thrown this much shade at the U.S. since 1918, during the country's last coast-to-coast total eclipse. In fact, the U.S. mainland hasn't seen a total solar eclipse since 1979 -- and even then, only five states in the Northwest experienced total darkness.

In Boise, Idaho, where the sun was more than 99 percent blocked, people clapped and whooped, and the street lights came on briefly, while in Nashville, Tennessee, people craned their necks at the sky and knocked back longneck beers at Nudie's Honky Tonk bar.

It was the most-observed and most-photographed eclipse in history, with many Americans staking out prime viewing spots and settling onto blankets and lawn chairs to watch, especially along the path of totality - the line of deep shadow created when the sun is completely obscured except for the delicate ring of light known as the corona.

The shadow -- a corridor just 60 to 70 miles wide -- came ashore in Oregon and then traveled diagonally across the heartland to South Carolina, with darkness from the totality lasting only about two to three wondrous minutes in any one spot.

"It's really, really, really, really awesome," said 9-year-old Cami Smith as she watched the fully eclipsed sun from a gravel lane near her grandfather's home at Beverly Beach, Oregon.

The rest of North America was treated to a partial eclipse, as were Central American and the top of South America.

"We're all part of something celestial -- so much bigger than us, so mysterious," said Ed Sullivan, who traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to Glendo Reservoir in Wyoming. "There is so much to ponder I don't even know what questions to ask, but I enjoy just feeling the mystery."

With 200 million people within a day's drive from the path of totality, towns and parks saw big crowds. Skies were clear along most of the route, to the relief of those who feared cloud cover would spoil this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

"The show has just begun, people! What a gorgeous day! Isn't this great, people?" Jim Todd, a director at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, told a crowd of thousands at an amphitheater in Salem, Oregon, as the moon took an ever-bigger bite out of the sun.

NASA reported 4.4 million people were watching its TV coverage midway through the eclipse, the biggest livestream event in the space agency's history.

"It's like nothing else you will ever see or ever do," said veteran eclipse-watcher Mike O'Leary of San Diego, who set up his camera along with among hundreds of other amateur astronomers gathered in Casper, Wyoming. "It can be religious. It makes you feel insignificant, like you're just a speck in the whole scheme of things."

Astronomers were giddy with excitement. A solar eclipse is considered one of the grandest of cosmic spectacles.

NASA solar physicist Alex Young said the last time earthlings had a connection like this to the heavens was during man's first flight to the moon, on Apollo 8 in 1968. The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission and, like this eclipse, showed us "we are part of something bigger."

With a half hour to go before totality, NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, enjoyed the moon's "first bites out of the sun" from a plane flying over the Oregon coast and declared it "just an incredible view."

"I'm about to fight this man for a window seat," Lightfoot said, referring to a fellow NASA official.

NASA's planetary science director, Jim Green, a usually talkative sort, managed an "Oh, wow!" when totality arrived in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and shouted: "There's Venus! There's Venus!"

Hoping to learn more about the sun's composition and activity, NASA and other scientists watched and analyzed from telescopes on the ground and in orbit, the International Space Station, airplanes and scores of high-altitude balloons beaming back live video.

Citizen scientists also planned to monitor animal and plant behavior as day turned into twilight. Thousands of people streamed into the Nashville Zoo just to watch the animals' reaction.

The Earth, moon and sun line up perfectly every one to three years, briefly turning day into night for a sliver of the planet. But these sights normally are in no man's land, like the vast Pacific or Earth's poles. This is the first eclipse of the social media era to pass through such a heavily populated area.

Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois saw the longest stretch of darkness: 2 minutes and 44 seconds.

Joe Roth, an amateur photographer, traveled south from the Chicago area to Alto Pass, Illinois, to catch his first total solar eclipse - on his 62nd birthday, no less. He said the stars aligned for him - "a Kodak moment for me to cherish and experience."

Kim Kniseley drove overnight from Roanoke, Virginia, arriving in Madisonville, Tennessee, before dawn to get a parking spot at Kefauver Park, where by sunrise dozens of folks had claimed benches and set up tents.

He said he could have stayed home in Roanoke and seen a partial eclipse of 90 percent, but that would have been like "going to a rock concert and you're standing in the parking lot."

Scientists warned people not to look into the sun without protection, except when the sun is 100 percent covered. To avoid eye damage, people were reminded to use special protective eyeglasses or pinhole projectors that can cast an image of the eclipse into a box.

The next total solar eclipse in the U.S. will be in 2024. The next coast-to-coast one will not be until 2045.

Floridians, others travel to South Carolina for view

One of the 14 states drawing travelers from all over the world to see totality of The Great American Eclipse was South Carolina, where News4Jax encountered people from Jacksonville to from as far away as London.

A large group of Jacksonville residents are in Santee, South Carolina, to play in a golf tournament during Monday's eclipse. But we also found Robert and Cheryl Blewitt, who crossed the pond to see the historic event.

They said the long trip from London to South Carolina is worth it. 

"They don't come around very often do they, so you have to go where they are," Robert said.

"Never seen it, so I'm quite excited just to see the whole thing," Cheryl added.

While not everyone traveled as far as the Blewitts to see the spectacle, some spent hours in the car to get here. Virginia college students Gina Kissel and Buddy White were to witness an eclipse Monday for the very first time.

"It's going to be great," said Gina. "I'm super excited. I mean it's a once in a chance, or a once in a lifetime chance, you know. I don't want to miss it."

But like many, the two missed out on getting special eclipse glasses, so they're going to make a homemade eclipse viewer in their hotel room.

"We're going to do the shoebox thing with the tin foil and the pin hole kind of thing.We're making it tonight. It's going to be really fun," Buddy said.

We also ran into families from all around Florida. Christian, 9,  and 12-year-old Caden have been waiting for this moment.

"It's the solar eclipse!" Christian said.

"I've never really experienced this so I'm really excited," added Caden. "We're extremely excited."

And while we were inside the Holiday Inn in Santee, a couple of guys from Green Cove Springs recognized the News4Jax logo.

Jimmy Thomason, a military veteran, picked Santee as the spot to watch this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with his brother-in-law, Leo.

"I've seen many partials, never a total," Jimmy said. "I am prepared. I brought 10 pair of shades, the good ones, and my telescopes has it's own cover for the front so I will record everything on my laptop." 

Jimmy tells us he plans to share his telescope images on the News4Jax StormPins app. Look in the eclipse category to see his photos and others.

Along South Carolina coast

Dave Wallace, with Scout Boats in Summerville, treated his employees to an eclipse party, shutting operations down so his staff doesn't miss a thing.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event," Wallace said. "I've heard of an eclipse before, but I've never seen one."

The historic city of Charleston always welcomes tourists with open arms, but "eclipse mania" brings an unusual excitement.

A downtown bakery made special eclipse cupcakes to mark the occasion.

"We positioned the Oreo in different phases, so it represents the different phases of what the eclipse will be," said Kate Glass of Cupcakes Down South

Tourists appreciate all that Charleston is doing to make this solar eclipse extra special.

"With Charleston being one of the locations of totality for the eclipse, I've heard a lot of other shops in Charleston are doing eclipse-themed things and all the hotels are booked and restaurants are full."

"We have people I've heard and seen and met from all over the country, as far as Seattle," said Bill Hall of Hall's Chop House.

Hall said this is the busiest his restaurant has been in a long time. He's welcoming people like Elizabeth Deaton who traveled hundreds of miles from Virginia.

"It sounds like it's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I imagine when I lo​ok back on my life a long time from now, it will be something I will always remember," Deaton said.

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.