Unexplained booms in NJ 1977
© Asbury Park Press
About 40 years ago, something so violent shook the Jersey Shore that the order was given to evacuate the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey.

The date was Dec. 2, 1977, and to this day and one federal investigation later, no one is absolutely certain what happened.

"Not Earthquake or Sonic Boom: Rumblings, Tremors Unexplained," was the main headline on the front page of the Asbury Park Press the next morning.

Initially, the supersonic Concorde was thought to be the culprit. A little more than a week earlier, the British-French airliner - which could travel twice as fast as the speed of sound - had started transatlantic service into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The first unidentified vibration had occurred about 10:30 a.m. just as an Air France Concorde was departing for Paris. However, that didn't explain the explosion-like sounds and tremors that came later, between 3:40 p.m. and 4 p.m. that Friday.

Air France and British Airways, which both operated the Concorde, insisted that there were no such flights operating off New Jersey at the time.

"We've checked and rechecked and it's not an aircraft," said Irwin Goldstein, FAA regional duty officer that day. "Now we are looking for an outside source."

Could it have been an earthquake? Scratch that off the list too.

"Dr. Yash Aggarwall of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, Palisades, N.Y., said seismographs there did not record any substantial readings when the tremors occurred," the Press reported. "If it was an earthquake the tremors, which affected more than a 50-mile stretch of coastline, should have shown up on the seismograph as such."

Nevertheless, something had happened. Take a look at the video above to see how the Press reported the unexplained sounds from the sky.

"It was more like an explosion," said Belmar Patrolman Robert Brand. He had heard it and there were concerned calls flooding into the borough's police dispatch from residents asking: "What was the explosion?"

Arlene London said her Middletown house began to shake sometime between 3:40 p.m. and 3:50 p.m., and she explained that the noise reminded her of a train passing in the distance, although not quite as loud as thunder.

Oliver, her Olde English Sheepdog, went "wild when the house started to move and he kept barking, something he never does," London remarked.

New Jersey State Marine Police Officer George Williams was in Point Pleasant when it happened. Williams said he felt tremors and the sounds reminded him of artillery shell blasts.

Indeed, the farther south along the Shore one was, the more powerful the experience seemed to be: In Galloway in Atlantic County, even a window was reported to have shattered.

In southern Ocean County, Barnegat police dispatcher Nancy Maloney said the township there was struck by two tremors.

"It sounded like a giant truck going passed your front door," Maloney said.

Up the road at the Oyster Creek power plant, fears that the tremors and noises were an earthquake, prompted managers to get employees out of the complex and into the open air.

Then on Dec. 15, there were reports of five more "explosions."

A few days after that, the subsequent revelation was publicized that atmospheric equipment at the Lamont-Doherty observatory had indeed detected a total of seven explosions since Dec. 2 about 50 miles offshore - equal in force to the detonation of 100 tons of dynamite.

The explosions were so high in the Earth's atmosphere so as not to cause a disturbance in ocean wave patterns, said William Donn, an acoustical engineer at Columbia University.

"It's amazing that something like this could happen without anybody knowing about it," Donn said, who had 40 years of experience at the time studying atmospheric phenomena.

Only a nuclear blast could have made a stronger impact on the instrumentation, he told reporters.

The explosions did not stop on Dec. 15. The "booms" as they would come to be called, would continue on Jan. 4, Jan. 11 and Feb. 21. Moreover, they would come to be experienced all along the Eastern Seaboard - from Nova Scotia to South Carolina.

Public pressure mounted for a federal investigation and the Department of Navy was tasked with the job.

In April 1978, the Navy completed its probe and concluded that the phenomena had been nothing more than U.S. military aircraft on routine training exercises - breaking the sound barrier.

At Columbia, Donn changed his story and said he accepted that assessment.

But not everyone went along with the official report.

"I can't explain it, I didn't believe it and I didn't understand it, either," said Lt. Col. Richard Sanders, operations director of the 177th Fighter Interceptor Group of the New Jersey Air National Guard outside of Atlantic City.

The Group's aircraft - Convair F-106 Delta Darts - were identified as being one of several military assets responsible for the Shore's booms in the Navy's report.

"We have been flying the same way for five years," Sanders said, when asked by reporters why such booms did not happen all or most of the time when his aircraft were airborne.