UFOs come in all shapes and sizes but the kind most commonly reported around the world is probably the ball of fire.
They are seen moving through the sky, on or near the ground and sometimes hovering motionless in the air. One witness I talked to even saw one rise up out of the Amazon River, hover for a moment as the water drained off, and then zigzag out of sight.
I have heard the same descriptions of mysterious fireballs in many countries, including Brazil, the Philippines, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Canada and, especially, the United States.
What appeared to be brush fires in the forests in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri caused a lot of excitement in early 1977.
"We saw a big orange glow off in the timber," Van Knabel, a resident of rural McDonald County, said in describing one sighting that was typical. "It looked like a big forest fire and it was coming down off the ridge. It was enough of a red glow that you could see the dead leaves and limbs between us and the timber.
Suddenly, the glow and everything went out like you turned a light switch. There were six of us and we got into two cars and went over there, but there was no sign of a fire, no smoke, no glow or nothing. I've seen timber fires before and they just don't go out that quick."
From mid-February and on into April that year, hundreds of people saw UFOs in McDonald County. How many UFOs there were, no one knows but they hung around for quite a while. As soon as people realized what was going on, they began to park their cars and trucks out on the higher ridges of the Ozarks at night, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Citizens Band radios were very common and as soon as someone spotted what he or she thought was a UFO, the word spread immediately. In minutes, a crowd would gather, sometimes causing traffic jams on normally quiet roads.
The witnesses weren't only from McDonald County, which forms the southwest corner of the state. The county shares borders with Oklahoma on the west and Arkansas on the south, and people would rush across the state lines to join the locals whenever a "brush fire" was seen.
But some residents had more than just ordinary sightings. Several had scary experiences. In one spectacular case, a young couple reported a frightening close encounter with a brilliantly lighted object that hovered over their truck while a man in green coveralls tried to flag them down.
In a second case, a forty-two-year-old man driving home late one night was jolted to a stop with his lights, engine and everything else on his pickup quitting as a disc-shaped object suddenly appeared and hovered over the highway a few feet in front of him.
In still another unusual case, late one afternoon before sunset eight people at four different locations saw a silvery object zoom at least eight miles up a valley. It had a large glowing light in front and flames were spewing from the rear.
Many sightings took place near Sims Store, a country store at the intersection of highways 90 and E in the southeastern part of the county. UFO activity was heaviest in February and March, and at times a hundred or more cars would be parked along the ridges near the store as people watched for UFOs.
"I wouldn't have any idea how many people saw these things but there was a whole bunch of them," said a Pineville, Missouri, policeman who asked not to be identified because hed been awakened too many times by people calling and wanting to talk about the sightings.
"There was one Saturday night they estimated a hundred to one hundred twenty five cars were out there near Sims Store.
McDonald Sheriff Clyde Gideon, whose office is in Pineville, the county seat, said: "We had lots of calls on them but a lot of people just simply didn't report them.
The police didn't keep a record of the calls but Mrs. Virgil Hottinger, did, at least in the beginning. An officer of the Southwest Missouri REACT team, she monitored the emergency CB channel on many nights when UFOs were being seen. (REACT is the acronym for Radio Emergency Associated Citizens Team, which monitors CB emergency band Channel 9 on a twenty four-hour basis.)
The first night they were reported that was February 12, at ten forty two p.m. I had the CB on Channel 9 and I get this call for help," Mrs. Hottinger said. "This man says, 'Lady, you better get somebody over here in a hurry!'
I said, 'Whats wrong?' He seemed frightened. He said, 'I don't know what it is but it's coming down out of the sky and it's coming right over my car and almost hit me and it's landed out here in a field.'
Well, I thought he had been drinking. It was a Saturday night. Within fifteen minutes or so, two more calls came in and somebody said, 'I think it's helicopters stealing cattle.' We had had that a few years back.
She never learned the identity of the man who called first but he was radioing from near Sims Store. He was calmed down by the fact that other people were seeing it but he was really excited. They wanted a highway patrolman to come out. By this time there were enough people out there that we knew it was not a helicopter and must be a UFO."
She kept getting calls throughout the night. By one thirty in the morning it was getting pretty hairy. There was a lot of profanity and stuff going on the CB because they were so shocked. There were like fifty reports of people seeing them that night. It was all over the CB, Channels 9, 10, 11, all the channels were covered with this going on.
Most of the sightings that night and for many weeks to come were of glowing orangish balls of light seen at night, moving about in the leafless trees and appearing at times to be brush fires. However, some objects were seen fairly close at hand, with sometimes terrifying results.
Perhaps the most horrifying incident reported occurred the night of March 5 at McNatt, a community then consisting mainly of a small country church, a crossroads, and a few houses scattered about within a mile of the church. McNatt is in the north-central part of the county fifteen miles northwest of Sims Store.
About eleven thirty that night, Lonnie Stites, a friendly, husky twenty six-year-old truck driver not known to frighten very easily, and his wife Debbie, twenty three, had an experience that left them both badly shaken. They were delivering a load of wood shavings to be used on the floor of a turkey house on a farm just north of McNatt. They never made it.
Just before reaching McNatt they noticed several red lights in the distance but didn't pay much attention to them. As they got closer and were just about to turn off onto the road to the farm, the red lights began revolving and a large object rose up fifty to sixty feet off the ground in front of them. It hovered for a moment, then flooded the area with bright light and disappeared in an instant.
"When our lights hit it, it just rose up and went to the top of the hill and had lights blinking off and on, Debbie said. I was scared to death. This thing rose up the hill and just hovered over us and it turned on this great big old light.
It seemed like the light spread out down the hillside in slow motion or something. It just spread out real slow. When they turned on that big light, it (the object) just sat there and rocked back and forth.
Then two people carrying these lights came down off that hill real fast and ran up to the road. The one that Lonnie got a look at I couldn't see. I was just staring at those lights.
I was so scared I was shaking and screaming. Something you don't understand, it scares you to death. I've never seen anything that big just disappear in front of you. And they turned those lights on us and that's what scared me."
Lonnie Stites was almost mesmerized. He passed the turnoff to the farm and was heading toward a ditch when Debbie grabbed the steering wheel and jerked them back onto the road. Thats when he spotted what looked like a man rushing down the side of the four hundred-yard-high hill toward them.
The figure was about five feet tall and garbed in green coveralls, a skullcap and large glasses. By now he was at the very edge of the highway waving his arms at them.
"It didn't look like he had any ears at all, Stites said. He had on a pair of black, square-rimmed glasses. He was weird looking! He was waving his arms or doing something with his arms.
He was right next to us. I thought he was going to come out in front of us. He was standing right on the edge of the road. If he'd have come any closer I would have smacked him.
"He was just human-like, but it didn't look like he had any ears. I don't know what was holding his glasses on. He had on a pair of green coveralls, that's what it looked like to me, pretty loose. And then he had this cap, like a skullcap. Had it pulled down so tight there wasn't a wrinkle in it or nothing.
Stites didn't stop. "Debbie was screaming and hollering and scared to death and I was too. I just came right on back through Goodman (another town farther to the west) right on down back to the mill. I didn't stop. I wasn't about to go back through there."
The mill was only eight miles behind them but they sped west, taking a twenty two-mile roundabout trip to avoid going back past that object again.
So far as is known, no one else saw what Lonnie and Debbie Stites had seen. However, a young man living less than two miles east of McNatt saw an unusual light descending in the neighborhood of the hill where they saw the object.
About seven thirty at night I saw this light in the air over the trees on that hill and it just set down," said Bill Collins, seventeen. "The light stayed in one place in the sky for five or ten minutes and then it just set straight down. I stood for fifteen minutes and saw it on the ground about a mile and a half away. It was orange."
Still others saw strange things in that neighborhood around the time of the McNatt sighting.
Lonnie Blevins, thirty six, then a carpenter's helper who lived two miles south of McNatt, said he and his father Lacey Blevins and four young boys saw something just at dusk about a week before.
"My dad and I were sitting out in the yard talking," Lonnie Blevins said. "I saw something that looked like a big model rocket, like a ball of orange fire with a kind of white flame behind it. It just came out of the timber at an angle and went up quite a ways and disappeared. There wasn't any noise or anything with it.
"This was northeast of us about dusk. It was just a big ball of fire, kind of orange, a real bright color and just looked like it was rolling. It had a string of whitish fire behind it. It just went up there and vanished. It kind of startled me. I know it sure scared those boys."
Three adults made still another sighting about a mile south of McNatt early in April. It was at the home of Mrs. Ethel Mahan, who saw the object along with her son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Glen Pogue of Pineville.
Pogue, fifty two, a Pineville jeweler, described the sighting. We started out to check on the cattle and almost a mile due south of us there was a bright light maybe a couple of hundred feet up in the air. They were up ahead of me and I hollered at them. It looked like it stood still. Then all at once it started turning and going up. There was no sound.
"This was about dusk. It sort of disappeared and then it came up again. It was about as big as a washtub and looked kind of like a bright blue light. It started climbing at a thirty-degree angle. Then it just disappeared.
It didn't go out of sight or anything like that. It just went up and disappeared. The light kept getting smaller and smaller until it dwindled out."
Both Sheriff Gideon and the Pineville police officer vouched for Lonnie Stites' reputation. "The Stites boys have always been pretty reliable," the sheriff said. Many sightings were reported to the Sheriffs office."
Said the Pineville officer: "I know Lonnie. I don't think he made that up. Ive talked to Lonnie myself and I don't think he did."
THE LAWRENCE McCOOL CASE
The first known sighting in McDonald County at the beginning of the flap took place on February 9, and exactly one week later, as things got exciting, forty two-year-old Lawrence McCool went hunting for UFOs and found one.
The lid blew off on about the tenth or eleventh of February and we started hearing about them on CB," McCool, a school bus driver, part-time farmer and contract brush cutter, said in an interview at his home, seven miles east of Pineville on Route K. He was one of the many people who had parked along one of the ridges near Sims Store the night of February 16.
"This particular night I'd seen four strange lights flying in formation off at a distance but I hadn't seen anything up close. They looked like they were three miles or so away. I sat there, and almost everybody was giving up and going home. About twelve thirty or one o'clock, Red Phantom (neighbor Ron Gentrys CB handle) got a call on the radio from his wife, who said there was one down close to their house.
"We could see a light down there from where we were at, roughly a mile through the woods. In the winter with the timber off you can see his house from the highway there. Phantom was getting a little nervous so he said, 'I'm going to run down there why don't you stay up here and keep your eye on it and if it starts to move tell me where it goes.' So I stayed up there by myself about another hour.
"I was watched this thing come and go. It wasn't really doing anything, just sitting there pulsing. And finally it just disappeared. I sat there awhile and decided Id come on home. I had to get up the next morning.
About four miles east of here, my CB started giving me trouble. Started getting strange noises I'd never heard before on CB. I thought it might be because of the weather. Wed had winds blowing out of the south for several days bringing dust from drier parts of the country.
"Started getting these little gusts of rain mixed with this dust, so I kind of blamed the radio foul-up on the weather. I drove about another half mile down the road this was about two thirty in the morning and everything on my pickup quit. My lights, radio, heater, windshield wipers, the whole works. Everything just quit.
"I don't know if I panicked and hit the brake hard enough to throw me up on the steering wheel or if this object actually stopped me. But all of a sudden, it just appeared there in front of me in the road. It was roughly forty feet above the road.
It was an object about eighteen to twenty feet across, about the same width as the blacktop road. It was just the color of molten copper, just a brilliant red-orange glow.
It hung there for a minute or two and then it just took off straight up into the overcast out of sight. After it left, everything on the pickup the lights, the wipers and so forth just automatically went to working. And when I touched the ignition, the pickup started like a new one.
There was a smell in the cab like the battery getting too hot or a generator burning up or something, but nothing has been touched on it mechanically since that time.
"The weird part about this is we were getting thirty five to forty-mile-an-hour cross winds. I'm just guessing about this wind speed because it was strong enough to shake the pickup, but this object was hovering up there in the wind just as still as it could be. Didn't seem to bother it in the least."
McCool admitted it frightened him. "I was scared so bad I wasn't thinking. Im not even sure I was rational I was scared so bad.
I'd watched several of these things from a distance and never even thought anything about it. But it's like going to a zoo and seeing a wild animal like a tiger and meeting one in the middle of the road on a dark night while you're afoot. It's about the same comparison. Whenever they make you feel like a bug under a microscope, it's a different feeling."
McCool said his eyes were red for about three days after, as if he had been looking at an arc welder. Although he believed the encounter lasted only a minute or so, two people he had been talking to by radio on his way home said it lasted somewhat longer.
The Pineville police officer said McCool was off the air for several minutes but he couldn't recall how long. The officer said he had heard "just all kinds of odd, grating noises" while talking with McCool, and "a CB just doesn't do that... It quit after it was all over. His radio was just as clear as a bell. I'd say Lawrence definitely saw something.
Evelyn Hottinqer, thirty one, who was monitoring the CB channels for REACT that night, felt it could have been ten to twenty minutes.
We were talking to him about three in the morning and Grizzly (the Pineville policeman's CB handle) kept saying, 'I can't talk to you you've got a terrible noise coming in with you.' And then Grass Grinder (McCools handle) says, Well, I don't know what it is but I can hear it too.'
"He was going home, she said. He'd been out sighting and said he was going back to his home anyway so we thought he was going off the channel. He wasn't. He came on, it seemed like twenty minutes later, and that man was absolutely terrified.
He was really scared. He came on and said he wanted us to stay on the channel with him until he got home. He said, 'Ive just had the most horrible experience of my life.' I said, 'Are you OK?' and he said, 'Im not hurt. I dont even know what's happened to me but, Boy, you should have been here. I had a sighting.
Earlier that night, forty three-year-old Ronald Cargile had a close encounter with a hat-shaped object. Shortly before eleven o'clock he heard a lot of excited talk about sightings on his CB radio. He hopped in his truck and drove to a ridge a half-mile east of Sims Store. He didnt have to wait long to see something.
I walked up to this old iron gate and all of a sudden a big light came up out of that hollow to about treetop level, not real fast, heading right towards the pickup, said Cargile, a carpenter.
I went to get back into the pickup to tell those guys Id seen it and about the time I opened the door, the dome light came on and this thing just kind of turned up on its edge and took off northeast. When I got in the pickup, my radio was just afrying like pouring water in hot grease and just went dead.
I didnt hear anybody or talk to anybody on it. It was that way for about a minute and then the radio began frying and came back on. That light just went over and kind of dropped down over that valley and went out and I never did see it anymore.
Cargile believed the object came within two hundred fifty feet of him. "It came between me and a dead tree and it blocked out part of that tree. Whatever it was, it didn't make any noise of any kind. It was maybe eight feet across, had a round body on the bottom and was sort of oval on top, like a sombrero. It had a row of lights around the bottom and another row of lights almost up on the top. I've never seen a light as bright as that in my life."
Ron Gentry, a forty-year-old subcontractor who lived about a mile from that iron gate, may have seen the same object.
"I heard four or five people come on the CB and talk about seeing some lights," he said. "My brother-in-law, my nephew and I started walking up towards Sims Store and got almost to the highway when we saw this thing coming.
It looked like a saucer on the bottom and it had a bubble on the top and was glowing moonlight bright. It went down in the valley pretty fast. I don't think it was much bigger than an automobile.
"We decided to go look for it. It was about a half mile down there and we could hear a humming noise as we got to the bottom of the draw. About that time, three of these things came up off the ground from somewhere about a thousand feet away and just hovered up there in the sky, all real bright orange.
"We didn't know what to do. My nephew and I wanted to go back and wait for the sheriff, but my brother-in-law said let's go down and see if we can find that thing. So we started on down toward the bottom of the draw again and the humming got louder and these three orange things began coming towards us. We decided we'd better go back up the hill.
"We started going up and they went back to where they'd been. We started back toward the bottom of the draw again and they came at us again. That's when we decided we'd better wait for the sheriff. Those things went down and we never did see them again that night."
Sightings in that region continued well into April. Charles Buchanan, thirty seven, a cement finisher and foreman who lived in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, just across the state line and two miles south of Sims Store, reported a curious sighting.
Around ten o'clock one night he was parked along Highway E not far from the store when he saw a big light rise up above the trees some distance away. It was about a foot thick and eight feet long, sort of orange colored. It stayed there for a few seconds and suddenly it just went out, POP!
And on April 16, Wallace OBrien, forty seven, an ambulance driver in Pineville, was awakened at three in the morning by loud, prolonged explosion. The sound frightened him because a train had blown up in a nearby town a few years earlier.
When he looked outside, he saw a big light about two hundred feet over his barn, swinging slightly. Then it moved over a nearby oak tree. It made no noise, and after two or three seconds it shot out of sight.
Around seven o'clock on the evening of March 10, about dusk, people at four different vantage points along Big Sugar Greek Valley in the southeastern part of the county saw a strange object go north up the valley for at least eight miles.
In Pea Ridge, Arkansas, just over the state line, fifty nine-year-old Denver McCool (a cousin of Lawrence McCool's) and his wife Arnez, fifty six, saw the object just as they turned into the driveway of their house.
"We looked up and there was this bright ball, just like a basketball, going up at about a thirty-degree angle from the east and like it was going north," said McCool, a carpenter. "It was just as bright as could be and had this four-inch flame coming out about eighteen inches long.
We saw it for about a hundred yards and this flame quit. Three or four sparks or half a dozen came out of this big ball of light and then it just went out."
About two miles north of Pea Ridge, Eddie Winter, fifty five, a painter, part-time farmer and Navy veteran, was walking through a field to visit a neighbor.
"I was going through the timber and saw this large glowing object," he said. "It looked like the fuselage on a plane but it wasn't that long. It was so astounding. I'd heard so much about these things. You scoff at something like that and then you're just flabbergasted.
"I saw this glow in front, then a kind of silvery fuselage and it had this flame coming out behind it about fifteen feet. It looked to me like it was four hundred to seven hundred feet above the ground and it was going at a terrific rate of speed."
Winter thought it was a jet that was going to crash, and he ran ahead to the next clearing. "The only thing I could think of was, He's fixing to hit right into the side of that mountain. When I got to the field, I figured it would be going due west but instead of that it just BLINK0! That was it. Then it was nothing. OUT! Just no sound, no nothing. It was just out!"
Describing the object once again, Winter said: "You could see a real yellowish halo-type thing on the front, real brilliant. I could see that fuselage but I couldn't make out whether there were any windows or anything else. But you could see that shape and everything was perfect, brilliant aluminum or chrome looking."
Less that two miles north of Winters farm, Glenn Coonfield, a twenty-year Army aviation veteran, and his family also saw the object.
"We were all sitting in the pickup at Carroll Miller's place, waiting for him to bring us some feed," said Coonfield, sixty. He retired as a sergeant in 1967 with thousands of hours of flying time to his experience.
"I happened to look out and saw this thing coming down Big Sugar Creek Valley, right here to the southeast, coming in like a large aircraft for a landing. It had a big bright light with a short tail trailing behind it.
We watched it come right down Big Sugar Creek Valley and sail right on out to about the junction of Highways 90 and KK. At this point, it sailed right back up into the sky at about a forty five-degree angle, gradual, not sudden, until it went out of sight."
With Coonfield in the pickup were his Vietnamese-born wife Thinh Dang, and his two adopted Vietnamese sons, Arvin, seven, and Orman, five. At the closest point, he said, "we were a mile and a quarter from the object. It was approximately a thousand feet high.
"Don't let anybody tell you otherwise they're real," said Coonfield, who was a crew engineer aboard cargo helicopters the last ten years of Army career. As I told my mother, they're not from this world. A vehicle that can do this without noise, we don't have any such thing in our country or any country."
Coonfield said he had flown in or was familiar with virtually every military plane or helicopter that the United States then had, and had logged more than ten thousand hours of flying time in one large type helicopter alone.
Like I reported to the sheriff, it was definitely an object or vehicle controlled by some guidance system, inner or elsewhere."
The last person known to see the object was Bill Nichols, then nineteen, who lived near Sims Store. He was driving east on Highway 90 and was approaching the intersection with Highway KK when he saw the object.
"I was going down the road and saw up in the sky what looked like a meteor coming in, only it was going horizontal to the earth," Nichols said. "It was just a big white ball.
It went across the sky and all of a sudden it popped. It looked like green shrapnel popped out of it. This big white ball just kind of exploded and this little bitty white ball, probably a third as small as the rest of it, shot out of the middle and went out across the sky.
"I sat and watched it for probably twenty five seconds, plenty of time to tell it wasn't any reflection or anything like that. It kind of gave me the goose bumps."
Dr. James Beacham, then an astronomer at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, said the only meteor showers that occurred early that year took place around April 22 and May 5, and he had not heard of any meteors reported seen in McDonald County.
He said the object that was seen in Big Sugar Creek Valley on the evening of March 10 probably was not a meteor. He said some meteors appear to give off sparks or explode, as this object did, but do not climb up into the sky and disappear.
The first known sighting during this period took place in the daytime. At about two thirty in the afternoon on February 9, just east of Sims Store, Mrs. Meda Beaver was driving east on Highway 90. With her were her retired farmer husband Cecil and their daughter-in-law Mary Beaver.
"We were east of Sims Store and a real brilliant light flickered and caught my eye," Meda Beaver said. "I turned to look and this thing was coming from the east going down west on a slope. My daughter-in-law and my husband were with me and I said, 'Oh, look!' And by the time they looked it had gotten down behind the treetops like it was landing out in the field.
It had a light that looked like a blaze to me, about four feet long and a foot wide, shooting down to the west, shooting out in front of it, in the direction it was going to land."
The object itself, she said, was silver colored and looked like three or four pancakes stacked one atop the other.
"It was sort of pancaked down, sort of like crevices running horizontally, she said. "It looked like it was creviced back in, kind of wrinkled down and sort of silver or greenish-gray."
Cecil Beaver was entering a curve when his wife called his attention to the object and he couldn't look at that moment. By the time he could, the object was gone.
Some people not familiar with these incidents have suggested that witnesses might have mistaken helicopters for UFOs. But that could not have been the case.
At that time, helicopter maneuvers often took place at Camp Crowder in Newton County, just north of McDonald County, but almost always in the summer time, according to a spokesman for the Army National Guard in Joplin, Missouri.
Major Gary Roark, who was then in charge of the encampment area at Camp Crowder, said no Guard helicopter units from the various cities in Missouri that use Camp Crowder were at Camp Crowder in February, March or April.
Furthermore, Jim Bell, then manager of the Neosho Airport, just a few miles north of McDonald County, kept a log of radio transmissions of helicopters and other aircraft in the area.
He said he had records of only three helicopter flights during the time of the UFO sightings. These were two helicopters from Fort Leonard Wood in the area between noon and one p.m. on February 15 and one helicopter around noon on March 29.