Americans on Saturday reporting seeing the large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance as it drifted over the Southern U.S. Hours later, it was shot out of the sky over the Atlantic Ocean.
TV footage showed the moment the balloon appeared to be hit and began its descent toward the water.
Two officials, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, said President Joe Biden had given the go-ahead to shoot down the balloon earlier Saturday and that officials would move to recover debris.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it had resumed operations after closing its airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The Coast Guard also worked to clear the water.
Earlier in the day, Americans in the Carolinas were using cell phones and professional cameras to document the balloon’s trajectory on Saturday. The balloon was spotted over Montana earlier this week.
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Video shows Chinese balloon being shot down
Footage on TV and captured by onlookers appears to show an aircraft approaching its altitude over the Atlantic and firing at the spy balloon. After a small explosion, its debris was seen slowly floating down to the ocean.
U.S. military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
What was the Chinese balloon doing?
The balloon was a “high-altitude surveillance balloon,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said.
China has maintained it was a weather research “airship” that went off course, but that has been rejected by U.S. officials. It’s not the first time China has tried to collect sensitive information, Ryder said.
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years, Ryder said. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America.
Where did people see the balloon?
The balloon was spotted Saturday floating east over the Carolinas, headed toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Evan Fisher, an atmospheric sciences major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, photographed what he said was a “surprisingly large” balloon just before 9 a.m. Saturday. He used a professional camera with a zoom lens to capture detail on the balloon.
“I’m used to weather balloons, I’m a meteorologist, so I’m familiar with 12- to 18-foot-wide balloons, but the fact that this thing is three school buses wide just just blew me away,” Fisher told USA TODAY.
Amy Ostrosky, who works in digital marketing and lives in Cornelius, about 20 miles north of Charlotte, said she and several neighbors ran outside to spot what they thought was the balloon Saturday morning. It looked like a bright star in the sky, but bigger, she said.
Ostrosky said the whole ordeal made her uneasy: “What is it for? What’s it doing? Why is it here?”
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY; The Associated Press