Eyes were locked on the Carolina skies Saturday as a suspected Chinese spy balloon ended its weeklong traverse over the U.S. when it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean and was shot down by a fighter jet.
In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a crowd lining the beach boardwalk cheered as a missile from an F-22 fighter struck the balloon. It quickly deflated and plummeted to the ocean.
“That's my Air Force right there, buddy!" a person exclaims just after the missile's impact, in a video taken by tourist Angela Mosley.
Mosley said she came out of a store and saw four fighters circling, then saw the balloon. “One of the fighter jets gets going fast and gets closer to it, and then a boom and we knew it was gone.”
Mosley said no boats appeared to be in the water beneath the balloon as the wreckage fell, but several aircraft arrived soon after. U.S. officials tried to time the operation so they could recover as much debris as possible before it sinks.
The maneuverable balloon had become a major flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing, and President Joe Biden faced pressure from Republicans in Congress to shoot it down. The administration waited until the balloon — about the size of three school buses — was over water because of risks to people on the ground from falling debris.
China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed.
As the balloon came over Myrtle Beach, software consultant Haley Walsh said she saw it floating in the clear blue sky. Walsh said she felt and heard a boom and ran outside where she saw the balloon tumbling down.
"I knew it was going over South Carolina, they were predicting it, but I didn't think it would go directly over," she said.
In Surfside Beach, South Carolina, photographer Travis Huffstetler set up on the roof of a condo to capture images of the balloon and said the beach was packed with people looking skyward and taking pictures and videos.
He got still shots of the balloon before and after its destruction, but missed the strike itself because he was on the phone.
“Aw, man, I just missed it,” he says at the outset of a video he posted to social media.
Huffstetler said the plummeting balloon and debris looked like “confetti falling.”
The balloon had entered the U.S. air defense zone north of Alaska's Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, crossed into Canadian airspace two days later and then back into the U.S. over northern Idaho on Tuesday, U.S. defense and military officials said. It was acknowledged by government officials Thursday, a day after commercial flights were temporarily halted at the airport in Billings, Montana, where people on the ground saw the balloon seemingly loitering high above the city.
Scattered sightings continued as it passed over the nation's heartland — above Missouri and the Kansas City area Friday, North Carolina on Saturday morning and finally over the South Carolina coast.
In York County, South Carolina the county sheriff’s office advised against anyone trying to take out the balloon on their own.
“Don’t try to shoot it!!,” the sheriff’s office tweeted Saturday as the balloon passed over the region at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). “Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.”
The fascination with the balloon that swept the nation also spawned false rumors that it had been shot down earlier in its journey.
An unverified video out of Billings claimed a “massive explosion” over the city Friday evening, two days after the balloon had passed over. The video was aired by Fox News, and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said in an interview with Tucker Carlson that he was “monitoring the situation.”
It was viewed millions of times and local officials had to bat down speculation that a Chinese balloon had been shot down. The city of Billings issued a statement that declared “there have not been any explosions in, around, or across #Montana.”
Another video purported to show the balloon brought down in North Carolina Friday afternoon — about the same time people reported seeing it above Missouri.
Software engineer and storm chaser Brian Branch captured photographs of the balloon high above western North Carolina hours before it was taken out. He could see a payload hanging from the round, white orb and watched it for more than an hour before it drifted into the path of the sun.
“I let it just pass on by. If it was spinning, if it was a tornado, I would have chased it,” he said.
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.