Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What caused the ground-shaking noise late Saturday? Winston-Salem police seek public's help to solve mystery

Residents have come up with all kinds of theories to explain the earth-rattling noise that shook part of the city Saturday night.

An earthquake, gunfire, a sonic boom or an explosion were just a few of the many suggestions.

But none of the sounds could quite measure the magnitude of what residents near Northwest Middle School in northern Winston-Salem said they heard.

“I just can’t explain the boom. And from talking with people, it seems to have come from Winston-Salem all the way to Reidsville,” said Sebastian Corradetti, who lives on the outskirts of Thomasville.

“If that was a sonic boom, then it must have been something bigger and faster than the jets I saw in the Marines.”

The ear-splitting boom around 10:45 Saturday night shook the homes of residents who live in a radius several miles wide, spanning from Tommy’s Lake Road to Bethania-Rural Hall Road.

Many residents reported it sounded like a loud explosion and shook the windows of their homes, police said.

Police have been in contact with local airports, the city landfill and local firearms ranges, but have been unable to find the cause of the incident.

“At first, we were worried about a geological issue, but there was no seismic activity and those instruments are very sensitive, so we quickly abandoned that,” Lt. Steve Osborne said.

“We’ve checked multiple airports because, logically thinking, a low-flying plane could cause that response, but everything’s checked out.”

Police asked for the public’s assistance Tuesday in finding “the origin of the sound and shaking of the ground,” a news release read, referencing the mysterious incident.

The area in question is about 10 miles from Smith Reynolds Airport and about two miles from the city landfill.

In 1969, an explosion at the National Guard armory rocked the city after methane gas caused by decaying garbage had built up underground in an abandoned landfill and eventually leached into the armory. More than 25 were injured and three were killed.

But police said they checked Monday with the Winston-Salem City Landfill, which is off West Hanes Mill Road, and found no evidence of methane issues or any other explosions.

They exhausted all avenues, even canvassing homes in the rural area near the incident to look for unofficial firing ranges, but turned up nothing.

“Sometimes we just don’t know,” Osborne said. “There are things out here we don’t always understand.”

Osborne said that the incident was “odd” and there is nothing left to pursue at this point unless someone comes forward with a tip.

Police received three 911 calls and about eight to 10 non-emergency calls regarding the incident.

“We really don’t know what it could’ve been. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Laura Williams, who has lived in the area for most of her life. “It woke me up, loud as a gun. It was scary.”

The timing of the incident just before midnight led her to believe it was a natural occurrence as construction workers wouldn’t be out and about, she said.

Sometimes such loud booms are earthquakes, but experts said that’s unlikely in this case.

John Bellini, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, said there were no earthquakes in North Carolina or Virginia in the time frame when people heard the noise in Winston-Salem.

Bellini said all kinds of things can make loud noises: blown transformers, thunder, wind gusts and sonic booms from military aircraft.

“Most of the time, (the noises) are not an earthquake,” Bellini said.

One Saturday night in 2005, there was a wave of calls reporting similar booms downtown between Glade and Cherry streets.

The cause of the booms was never resolved, although then-chief geologist for the N.C. Geological Survey Tyler Clark speculated there may not be enough earthquake-measuring equipment in the area to determine whether a small earthquake occurred.

Loud noises and vibrations that struck the Konnoak Hills neighborhood in 1994 turned out to be small earthquakes, the largest of which measured 1.7 on the Richter scale.

Saturday’s incident caused no damage to homes in the area and no injuries were reported.

Police have not received any other reports of similar incidents since Saturday.

Some who heard the noise and felt the shake Saturday tossed around the idea of a sonic boom — the thunderous noise created when an object travels through the air faster than the speed of sound — caused by a military plane.

Or just maybe it was something supernatural.

Allie Bell told her 3-year-old son it was a superhero flying through the air to assuage his fears after the noise woke him up.

“My guess is an earthquake or a military plane because it was very loud,” Bell said. “My son would like to believe it was Superman or something swooping down over Winston-Salem. Who knows.”

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