'This is better than Disneyland' 50 million get chance to witness eclipse of sun

July 12, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Sun Staff Correspondent

SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico -- Night came at midday here yesterday in a spectacular eclipse of the sun visible to millions, from Hawaii to Brazil.

The total eclipse, the longest until the year 2132 and the only one in North America for the next 26 years, was a stunning reminder of man's tiny place in the universe.

People at this Baja California resort town wept in silence or whooped for joy as the blazing tropical sun was covered by the moon, setting off the flashes of a thousand Instamatic cameras.

For more than 6 minutes, 18 seconds, the sun's churning bolus of fire was quenched by the dark mask of the dead moon.

Eclipse fans left their expensive cameras and telescopes to lie on the beach, staring in awe at the filaments of flame swirling behind the lunar surface in the blackened sky.

"I am freaked," said Josephine Boudreaux, 9, from Laramie, Wyo. "This is better than Disneyland."

The weather was unusually kind as the event began at 6:30 a.m. local time in Hawaii, sweeping southeasterly for 9,300 miles at faster than a mile per second.

The 160-mile-wide path cut across some of the most populous cities of Mexico -- Guadalajara, with 3 million people; Puebla, 1.5 million; and Mexico City, with 18 million.

Mexican television showed mostly clear images from Mazatlan to Oaxaca and Central America. (It rained in the capital.)

Many astronomers had feared that the summer rainy season would interfere with the viewing in those areas and advised eclipse fans to travel to Hawaii or arid Baja California for their best chance to avoid rain.

The eclipse ended at sunset, shortly before 8 p.m. EDT, 200 miles north of Brasilia, Brazil's capital.

In so doing, it may have crossed the vision of about 50 million people.

"I live for that natural power," said Keith Ewall, who quit his job as a San Diego security guard to come here for the eclipse. "You never get it any better than this."

Scientists and astronomy buffs from more than 78 countries came to witness the event here, because it promised the longest and clearest period of eclipse, slightly less than 7 minutes in some areas.

(The theoretical maximum for a solar eclipse is 7 minutes, 40 seconds. The longest on record, 7 minutes, 24 seconds, occurred June 27 in A.D. 363.)

Astronomers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Japan and the Soviet Union conducted experiments here and in the Mexican heartland.

Mexico's fledgling space program launched an eclipse experiment aboard a 3 1/2 -foot rocket from Santiago Ixcuintla, in Nyarit state along the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez.

The rocket took off, but it apparently failed to transmit any data.

For most of the watchers, the event was more mystical than scientific.

"For me, a total eclipse is simply amazing, something that becomes an addiction, even an obsession," said John Goodman, 47, of Annapolis before setting off for his 15th total eclipse in Mazatlan.

The Maryland man and his 40-year-old wife, Mary, have traveled to places as far away as Mindanao Island in the Philippines to see an eclipse.

The hotel they stayed in to see one in New Caledonia was burned down by rebels the day after they left. They onced raced in a chartered plane to view an Icelandic eclipse and received an offer from the Soviet air force to "blow away the clouds" at an eclipse in Siberia.

But things have not always been as lucky for the Goodmans, who have occasionally spent hundreds of dollars only to find an eclipse obscured by clouds or trees.

Yesterday's eclipse was a kind of anniversary event for the computer analysts who fell in love in 1973 during an eclipse off the west coast of Africa. The 1973 eclipse was of similar height in the sky and of a nearly equal duration, following an 18-year cycle, said Mr. Goodman.

By the time yesterday's eclipse struck Baja California, it was almost perpendicular to the Earth's surface, having been low on the horizon in Hawaii.

Shortly before noon, a strange pinkish hue rimmed the horizon, and Venus, the brightest planet, made its entrance.

Suddenly, the lunar shadow, or umbra, fell upon the land as the moon blocked the sun, and the 90-degree heat plummeted 15 degrees.

The Baja is 2,500 miles nearer to the moon than Hawaii because it is closer to the equator's bulge.

At this stage, the moon is 6 percent larger than the sun, which is almost at its farthest point from Earth and presents its smallest image.

Once the total eclipse began, other planets emerged: Jupiter, Mars and Mercury, along with the star Regulus.

The eerie darkness was illuminated by the apocalyptic mass of sun and moon that seemed to boil in the night sky.

"Oh God, oh God," exclaimed Olga Lawrence, a 26-year-old secretary from San Diego. "The world is about to end."

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