Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sandia Lights Mystery Solved ... Maybe

Sandia Lights W Border
By Bruce Daniels

     Will the Sandia Lights — a string of stationary lights seen along Sandia Crest Tuesday night — join the Taos Hum and the UFO Crash near Roswell as part of New Mexico's permanent museum of weirdness?

      Apparently not. Just as the state's newest mystery was deepening, eyewitnesses told U.S. Forest Service officials Wednesday they had seen people on the crest Monday carrying large boxes with photographic equipment and again on Tuesday people setting up large "can-shaped lights" along the crest for some kind of photo shoot or photo experiment.

      Phones were ringing off the hook at news media outlets and official agencies Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as a string of lights — some said five or six placed at regular intervals along or just below the Sandia Peak ridge — appeared between just after sundown until around 10 p.m. Tuesday.

      Officials were just as baffled as the general public until people came forward Wednesday and told the Forest Service what they had seen.

      "Someone saw a group of three people Monday afternoon carrying large boxes with photo equipment," District Ranger Jackie Andrew of the Sandia Ranger District said Wednesday. "They were told it was kind of a photography experiment."

      Then, a person living at Sandia Peak's Crest House with Forest Service authorization told officials he had seen some seven or eight battery-operated lights, similar to those found at construction sites, lined up along the crest, Andrew said.

      Whoever lined up the lights "took the photos and left," said Forest Service spokeswoman Karen Takai.

      The explanation "wasn't terribly exciting," said Andrew, who earlier Wednesday had joked, "There were no reports of aliens on the crest this morning."

      More likely, Andrew said before the Forest Service had the witnesses come forward, the lights had been caused by nighttime hikers placing lights at regular intervals along the trail, "a see-the-woods-at-night kind of thing."

      Mark Chavez, spokesman for the Cibola National Forest, said the same thing. "We suspected it was a group of hikers hiking at night."

     But, he added, "we're just as curious to find out what it was as everybody else."

      A Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy was dispatched to the crest Tuesday night and found nothing, said BCSO spokeswoman Erin Kinnard. "The deputy cleared the call around 10:15 (p.m.) and said it was nothing."

     In fact, the whole public uproar about the lights was much ado about nothing, Kinnard said.

      "We got lots of calls," she said. "But we didn't spend a lot of time on it."

     Sandia Peak Tramway manager George Boyden said the tram got "all kinds of phone calls" from newspapers, radio and television stations and the general public. "We still don't have any idea what it was," Boyden said.

     The first light appeared shortly after sunset, around 7:30 p.m., Boyden said. Then five or six lights appeared at regular intervals, "all right along the ridge" between the Crest House and the tramway terminal, he said.

     Boyden said the lights were visible from below the crest as he was driving home around 9 p.m. and were still visible around 10 p.m.

     Boyden said he thought when the first light was reported was that somebody had gotten lost, but when more lights appeared he said he joked to coworkers that "maybe the UFOs had landed."

     More likely, Boyden said, the lights could have been part of a promotional stunt — one that could well backfire if it was an organized activity that had failed to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

     District Ranger Andrew said that a check of the trail where the lights were set up didn't even find a footprint. But whoever engaged in the photo experiment or photo shoot should have checked in with the Forest Service to see whether a permit was needed.

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