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Lights in the Sky -  a UFO above the Bahamas

This page is based upon an article in the 'Nassau Guardian' and on many letters written to the author 
by others in the islands of the Bahamas who had also seen the lights.

A fantastic stream of 'fireballs' and lights were seen across the northern Bahamas. Drawing made by the author on the back of an envelope as the lights were being observed.

 Winter is high season in the Bahamas with daytime temperatures in the seventies and eighties, and humidity low. The popular beaches are thick with tourists soaking up the sun, while Bay street is thronged. Visitors from the many cruise ships moored alongside the Prince George Wharf mingle with the locals as they search for a bargain among the market stalls and duty free shops. 

For residents of the islands, and particularly for the expatriate community, winter is also very much the party season with music ringing out late into the night.  The parties are just getting under way at nine O’clock. Barbecues are being lit, Lobsters, chicken portions and steaks are being prepared for their fiery fate on the hot coals, and ice buckets are crammed with cans of cold German beer. On the night of January 10th, 1985, dozens of such parties, barbecues and social gatherings were just starting in the hotels, homes and clubs of Nassau, capital city of the Islands, and situated on the northern side of New Providence island.

 In the outlying subdivision of Johnson Road Estates to the south of the capital, Patsy Saunders and a number of friends were enjoying the comparative coolness of the night air, while Kevin Carroll - a licensed pilot, was watching a native show in the grounds of the Nassau Beach Hotel. Less than half a mile from the hotel, Anne Parnell and seven friends were enjoying a barbecue on a rooftop patio above the Swank Club on West Bay Street. All were looking forward to the evening ahead, their minds on nothing more than enjoyment of the moment with family and friends. They had no idea of the spectacular event that would shortly unfold. 
This drawing by M. Dean is similar to my own observation

New Providence is a small island, not much larger than the Isle of Wight, but without the hills; a low platform of limestone with lakes, Mangrove swamps and Pine forests set in an emerald sea. At night though, as everywhere else, the sea loses its famous colour and can be black and forbidding. Close to the waves gently lapping at the jagged limestone rocks of Delaporte Point to the west of the town, Robert A. Fairbairn, a former member of the staff of the radiation laboratory of the US Government's Office of Scientific Research and Development, was on the balcony of his town house. Before him the sea stretched away into the night, the darkness unbroken except for the bobbing lights of a local inter - island mail boat far out at sea, and the tapestry of stars in the night sky. Robert Fairbairn expected to see nothing more.  

Closer to town, aboard the research vessel Sir Walter Raleigh, moored at Nassau Harbour's Prince George Dock, the party had just finished. A reception for local dignitaries and those concerned with Science and Conservation in the islands had broken up some half-hour earlier, and now the staff and students aboard the research vessel were cleaning up and preparing for the next day's work. Still aboard, discussing the various research projects to be carried out in the following weeks were Microbiologist Val Sesnewin, Scientific Curator of the expedition, Junior School Teacher Sarah Masse, and Heather Packington, a Science Teacher at Nassau’s prestigious St. Andrews School, and a leading member of the Bahamas National Trust’s Schools Education Committee. 

The Trust’s Executive Director, Rod Attrill had returned home from the reception with his wife Moira, and was carrying Suzie, the couple’s Bahamian Maid to her home off Meadow Street. 

No more than three hundred yards from the Sir Walter Raleigh, a sailing boat belonging to Professor Roger Frost of the University of the West Indies rocked gently at its mooring. Professor Frost, an experienced sailor and an expert in astral navigation was relaxing as he watched the lights of Nassau dancing and twinkling on the dark waters of the harbour.  

Anne Parnell believes she saw a metallic shape behind the lights.

The green and white Volkswagen minibus driven by Rod Attrill, was just approaching Meadow Street in Nassau's 'over the hill' district, an area of small wooden shacks with beaten earth yards shaded by Palm trees, Tamarinds and Pigeon Plums. He expected to be home within ten minutes, and was quite unaware of the event soon to unfold. 

Almost a hundred miles to the north, on the larger island of Abaco, Aircraft Mechanic Michael Parotti, his wife Susan and Mike's cousin from Toronto were sitting around a fire on the beach at Cherokee Sound. They, like many others, had no idea what they were about to see. Later - after the stories about the lights had been told, and countless excited descriptions had been given, there were sceptics who said the sights were the result of too much alcohol, or simply too much imagination. But the stories were remarkably similar, and far too many of the tellers were qualified in branches of the sciences, or in aspects of aviation, for their descriptions to be discounted. 

Witnesses reactions varied. One sober resident of West Street, was quite overcome, and fell to his knees, praying for salvation when he saw the lights. Others took a more pragmatic view and put them down to Meteorites, or maybe a comet. Others just didn’t know. The lights came from the south west, bisecting the night sky with a spectacular display; a display like nothing witnessed since February 9th, 1913. Then they were called "Cyrillids", after the feast day of St Cyril of Alexandria - the day on which the lights were first seen. 

In Nassau though, on that January night, no-one seeing the lights knew of the event witnessed seventy two years earlier from central Canada, and in an arc across the United States as far as the island of Bermuda. When the lights appeared high over Nassau, conversation came to a dead stop, drinks were put aside, and cutlery hastily discarded as people stared incredulously into the sky. 

Rod Attrill first glimpsed the lights in the top right hand corner of the Volkswagen’s windscreen, thought at first it was a firework, and then brought the minibus to a skidding stop beneath a Palm tree, throwing open the vehicle’s door, and running into the road to get a better view; not quite believing what he saw. Behind the Nassau Beach Hotel, Kevin Carrol saw the lights coming over the roof of the hotel, and quickly moved away from the bright illumination of the native show to the darkness of the beach where he could see more clearly. In Nassau Harbour, Val Sesnewin, Sarah Masse and Heather Packington aboard the Sir Walter Raleigh, and Roger Frost on his sailboat had a totally uninterrupted one hundred and eighty degree view of the spectacular lights. Professor Frost was even able to use the compass on his boat to accurately calculate the direction from which the lights came, it was approximately thirty degrees; from the south-southeast. 

the 'Cyrillid swarm' of 1913 - as it was then known, was described in  a Penguin paperback entitled 'Celestial Passengers, UFOs and Space Travel,' by Margaret Sachs and Ernest Jahr 

 The witnesses’ accounts were all remarkably similar. The Parottis in Abaco described the lights as: ' a large bank of very bright lights.. moving in perfect unison...with absolutely no sound. 

Robert Fairbairn wrote that they were ' a series of lights trailing across the sky....the lead object in the shape of a bulbous teardrop, about eight hundred feet in length,’ while Rod Attrill wrote the next day in his regular column in the daily Nassau Guardian , that ..'whatever it was just kept coming and coming, with more and more bright lights following from behind the cloud.' He wrote that: 'within seconds a majestic procession of lights was trailing across the sky, some brighter than the others, but all maintaining perfect speed and position in relation to the others.' 

All described the lights as having a larger leading part and a trailing tail of less bright lights.’ Both Robert Fairbairn and Rod Attrill made notes immediately on whatever paper came to hand, and both made estimates of height and size. With a known cloud base of two thousand feet, both estimated its height at five thousand feet or more.  

Without exception, those who saw the lights remarked on the eerie silence of their slow passage across the sky. Many spoke of them as moving at about the speed of a large jet aircraft, and some tried to estimate the size of the object or objects in various ways.  Calculations made based on the arc of sky covered by the object, and its estimated height, placed its length at anything from around eight hundred feet - if it was at a height of two thousand feet, to a staggering half mile in length at five thousand feet. Whatever it was it was certainly big!  

Most other accounts were similar, but some varied in a most interesting way. Patsy Saunders thought she saw..’a huge shiny metal object with lights coming from the sides as if through windows,’ and Anne Parnell on the roof top patio above the Swank Club said it looked like ' the body of a plane, with cabin lights shining.' Judson Thompson of Village Road and Lionel Symonette of Highland Park independently shared their views. All felt they had seen an actual shape with lights coming from it rather than a series of apparently connected but random lights. 

Had they really seen a metallic shape, or had they only thought they had seen a metallic shape? One possible explanation for their differing perceptions is that maybe some of the observers had been outside in comparative darkness for longer than others, and their eyes had better adapted to the low light. A person coming from a bright place into the darkness cannot see as well as someone already out in the darkness. This is to do with the way in which the eye replenishes the all important pigment visual purple, the substance in the retina that allows us to perceive light. If this is the case, then maybe some had indeed seen a metallic object; which because of its great size could only have been some great alien spacecraft! 

An alternative theory may be provided by Gestalt Psychology. This theory explains how our perceptions are heavily influenced by the context or configuration of perceived elements - or to put it more simply, if one sees a part of something, then one thinks in terms of the whole. In other words, when one sees several lights moving across the sky in a fixed pattern, then one assumes they must be connected - and if they are indeed connected, then they must be a part of something. The brain can and does make many hundreds of such subconscious decisions in our day to day lives as we automatically assess the world around us.  

It is the fixed relationship of the lights that provides the greatest puzzle in explaining the events of that evening. Natural phenomena known to travel across the sky do not move in this way. Meteorites and meteor showers can be generally discounted as they burn out and disappear in the blink of an eye, and if they were to move as slowly as this phenomenon - taking between twenty and forty seconds to cross the sky , then some would burn more brightly while others would fade and quickly disappear. A similar pattern would be seen as space debris returned to earth, with friction against the atmosphere rapidly burning up the pieces. 

Comets can also be discounted, for they never appear over the horizon or from behind clouds without warning - they are almost always predicted - sometimes years in advance, by astronomers with powerful telescopes. Nor yet does the tail of a comet follow the head like that of a firework. The tail always points away from the sun, and has no relationship whatsoever to the motion. There would appear to be no obvious scientific explanation of the lights, either those seen in Nassau on January the tenth 1985, or those observed in 1913.

 The earlier account of the 'Cyrillid swarm' as it was then known, was spotted in a Penguin paperback entitled 'Celestial Passengers, UFOs and Space Travel,' by Margaret Sachs and Ernest Jahr some time later, by a student who read Rod Attrill's article about the sightings in the Nassau Guardian. He sent a photocopy to the newspaper, and immediately the similarities were obvious.

An eyewitness of the time wrote: 'They glided along so leisurely and did not seem to be falling as meteors usually do, but kept a straight course, about forty-five degrees, or a little more, above the horizon. Our first impression was that a fleet of illuminated airships of monstrous size were passing. The incandescent fragments themselves formed what to us looked like the illuminations, while the tails seemed to make the frame of the machine. Sometimes there would be just a single collection, forming a single ship, then in a half minute several collections would pass, looking like ships travelling in company.' 

On February 9th, 1913, the so-called Celestial Parade was seen at 9.05 p.m. In January 1985 it was just slightly later at 9.48 p.m. Observers of the earlier occurrence described the colours of the leading body as being a fiery red or a golden yellow. Robert Fairbairn, familiar with the Aurora Borealis and with the effects of electromagnetic disturbance wrote that the colour of the 'bulbous teardrop plume' was a blue / purple similar to the colour of the flame of a propane burner'. Towards the outside of the plume he described shades of green, while the whole envelope glowed in a muted cerise colour. The Parottis on the island of Abaco wrote that they saw shades of brilliant white, red and yellow. 

Strangely, the paths of the two sightings were similar, each following an almost parallel track, the earlier sighting being a thousand miles to the west, and passing far out into the Atlantic past Bermuda. The lights though, were going in opposite directions, the 1913 lights were heading south east, while the later phenomenon was moving to the north west! Nassau is well within the so-called Bermuda Triangle, and the Bahama Islands have had more than their fair share of nautical mysteries over the centuries. 

There is however no well established folklore regarding mysterious lights in the sky, and it seems clear that the lights seen on January 10th were an unexpected and unusual event. Could it be that the lights have been returning every seventy years, and if so, will they be seen once more in the year 2050? This story, like so many others concerning paranormal phenomena, raises far more questions than it suggests answers. Those who saw the lights know what they saw - even if they will never know for sure what the lights really were. Did they see only lights, or did they - as some thought, see a great alien spacecraft? Maybe they saw the test of some new secret weapon of war returning to Cape Canaveral only a few hundred miles to the northwest.  

A Nassau Doctor, Michael Hale, wrote to the 'Tribune', another Nassau newspaper several days after the reporting of the sightings, explaining that the lights were the sun's reflection from huge sheets of thin aluminium foil released into the upper atmosphere from an American military satellite, and that they were orbiting 185 miles above the Earth's surface. 

Dr Hale explained later, that he was given the information by a tourist patient, but was unable to verify the man's connection, if any, to the US military. His letter, he said, was more by way of a joke, than to impart serious information. 

Who could the mysterious tourist have been? Most witnesses of the lights will continue to regard the phenomenon as simply a UFO - an unidentified flying object. The questions will remain, but all who were there to see the lights in the sky know they saw something rare and special, and that for twenty or thirty seconds each and every one were witness to events beyond Man’s knowledge or comprehension.


 The night of January 10th, 1985 was truly a night to remember!            

Postscript:    Photos shown after the tragic Columbia Space Shuttle disaster of February 1st, 2003  are eerily similar to drawings made of this UFO incident in 1980.   I made an enquiry to NASA after observing the UFO, and they said that there were no known atmospheric re-entries at that time. The online record also shows no re-entries on that date.     

With all the technology and monitoring at their disposal, it is odd that the US authorities made no report of these lights at the time.

A number of questions need to be asked and even more remain to be answered.

 

© R. Attrill 2006