The Bell Island Boom

It seemed an uneventful spring Sunday like any other on April 2, 1978, when out of the blue (literally) came a high-pitched hum followed by an explosion that was heard over a hundred kilometres away. Dozens of witnesses to the strange event reported seeing a beam of multi-coloured light coming straight down from the sky moments before what became known as “The Bell Island Boom.”

Two holes about two feet deep and three feet wide marked the point of impact. Buildings were damaged, chickens electrocuted, dogs went nuts, powerlines melted, and more than a few television sets exploded as a result.

Within twenty-hour hours, two American representatives from the top secret Los Alamos weapons research facility in New Mexico were on the scene. They promptly declared the baffling boom to be the result of “ball lightning” attracted by a nearby abandoned underwater iron mine.

They then departed, taking the fried chickens with them.

Boom Town: Bell Island, Newfoundland (WikiMedia Commons photo)

Unfortunately, nobody is entirely sure just what ball lightning is exactly. The phenomenon is so strange that for the longest time scientists thought people were simply making it up. Witnesses have reported seeing glowing balls of light ranging in size from tennis balls to beach balls that are either red, white, blue, yellow or green. They’ve been known to pass harmlessly through walls and windows and also violently blast their way through; they’ve even been reported floating down the aisles of airplanes while in mid-flight.

Basically they are inexplicable gleaming balls of energy randomly floating through the air. Imagine if Tinker Bell, instead of being a hot miniature blonde woman, was a fiery orb that could blast through and/or pass through anything in its path. That’s the general idea. 

Probably the best-known example of it occurred when ill-fated 18th-century Russian physicist Georg Richmann installed a lightning rod in his St. Petersburg home and as a result got struck in the head by a “pale blue ball of fire.” Not only did the mysterious fireball kill him, it also blew his shoes off, knocked his trusty assistant unconscious, and blasted a nearby door off its hinges.

Great Ball of Fire: A 19th century engraving depicting ball lightning. (WikiMedia Commons photo)

Some scientists think ball lightning is a unique kind of static electricity or maybe some sort of electrified silicon. Another theory taken seriously in certain circles is that ball lightning is caused by “singularities,” which is something really huge that doesn’t actually take up any space, if you can wrap your head around that. Or maybe the Greek god Zeus, fed up with the short shrift he’s getting worship-wise these days, is simply messing with us.

Filmmakers Jon Whalen and Barbara Doran raised a more sinister explanation for the Bell Island Boom in their 2004 documentary The Invisible Machine. They suggest the explosion was triggered by early American military experimentation with electromagnetic pulse weapons (so-called “e-bombs” that can destroy electrical and communications systems that may have been used during the “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq) and that high-energy beams focused into the ionosphere were instead attracted by the iron in the abandoned mine.


(This story was first published in Weird Places in Atlantic Canada, 2009 © Copyright (c) Blue Bike Books)


3 thoughts on “The Bell Island Boom

  1. It is generally acknowledged to have been a lightning “superbolt” – – – that is, a positively-charged bolt of lightning from ten to several hundred times more powerful than the garden-variety negatively-charged bolts that rattle around in a typical summer thunderstorm. It could have come from a storm a hundred or more miles away. Typically, such a bolt originates in the anvil of a mature thundercloud, usually in the rear quadrant, and leaps out into clear air and travels for miles before thudding down to earth with a monstrous boom that has been measured at 234 decibels – – – equivalent to a five-point earthquake or a broadside from a battleship. One such bolt slammed down in New Haven (Connecticut) on October 21, 2010, and was heard in Flushing, New York, more than 60 miles away. I know because I heard it. I live in Flushing. People outdoors in New Haven were thrown to the ground by the impact within a radius of a half mile.


  2. Remember how those “e-bombs” were so successful that we’ve been using them ever since and to great effect?

    No? Yeah, I don’t either. Sorry, documentarists, your hypothesis needs work.


  3. I correct one statement in my above post. Thunder from a lightning superbolt has been measured at 712.7 decibels by the University of Oklahoma. The meteor explosion over Russia a couple of years ago was only ca. 250 decibels, and that fractured people’s skulls.


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