GREENSBURG, Pa. -- Ronnie Struble of Kecksburg presides over a growing financial empire UFO buffs are calling the "Roswell of the East."
OK, maybe it's not an empire yet, only a room in the basement of the Kecksburg Emergency Medical Service. But the fire department in this rural Westmoreland County hamlet has parlayed a 42-year-old mystery into a source of revenue that helps to pay the bills.
"Punxsutawney has its groundhog," Struble said. "We got the UFO."
Or do they?
The question of what dropped from the sky near Kecksburg has never been resolved, at least not to the satisfaction of UFO watchers and neighborhood folks who saw it.
On Dec. 9, 1965, a fiery object streaked through the sky from Canada across the United States and fell into a wooded area of Mt. Pleasant Township, putting Kecksburg -- about 12 miles south of Greensburg -- into the annals of UFO lore.
State police quickly cordoned off the area. About 25 Army soldiers and a few Air Force members combed 75 acres, keeping out hundreds of curious onlookers, sometimes at gunpoint.
Late that night, a few of the town's 200 or so residents say they saw an acorn-shaped object the size of a Volkswagen hauled out on a tarpaulin-covered military flatbed.
The Air Force said it was a meteor. Others theorized it was debris from a Russian-launched Cosmos 96 spacecraft that survived re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Many people believed neither explanation. All that remained in Kecksburg were a cluster of damaged trees and a tantalizing mystery.
Then wider interest in Kecksburg picked up, spurred by a segment on the television series "Unsolved Mysteries" in 1999, then by an hour-long Sci Fi Channel documentary in 2003 Hedd, "The New Roswell: Kecksburg Exposed." In 2005, the History Channel offered another documentary, "Kecksburg UFO."
Two years ago, the fire department held the first Kecksburg UFO gathering to mark the 40th anniversary and started selling anything that could be stamped with a picture of a glowing acorn flashing through the sky.
In the latest twist, a recent settlement in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit requires NASA to continue searching for documents that might reveal what happened at Kecksburg. The lawsuit was filed in 2003 by Leslie Kean, a freelance journalist supported by the Sci Fi Channel who hopes to solve the mystery.
Meanwhile, the fire department sees money in the mystique.
Just as Roswell, N.M., created a tourist industry from reports of downed spacecraft and alien creatures, Struble hopes Kecksburg can become a mecca for UFO enthusiasts.
"Our goal is to make some money to help pay for a new truck. This kinda helps," he said.
On a recent Wednesday evening, the fire hall is hopping with visitors chowing down on wings, a weekly fundraiser in a town where there's no other place to socialize. In the basement, Struble is filling mail orders at the UFO Store -- from $25 hoodies and $12 Christmas ornaments to hats, T-shirts, beer mugs, commemorative plates and videos -- for true believers, collectors of kitsch and the just plain curious.
For two hours each Wednesday, people can browse alien-themed memorabilia or listen to a documentary about the incident.
Tourists and other visitors -- sometimes by the busload -- have managed to find this out-of-the-way building, now guided by a glowing, acorn-shaped spacecraft replica mounted out back as a beacon. The replica was donated to the department by the "Unsolved Mysteries" program, which made the model for its episode on the Kecksburg incident.
Business is so good the fire department plans to open a second store in the fire station and the Kecksburg UFO Restaurant this year. More bus tours are scheduled to stop by, and the town's annual festival has been renamed the "Kecksburg Old Fashion and UFO Festival Days."
"This is our little niche, and we're going to use it," said Rich Comp, a 20-year veteran of the fire department.
In the first four months the store was open, between $1,500 and $2,000 of merchandise was sold, Struble said. In 2007, the first full year, sales hit $10,000, and the department has been able to bank some money.
The firefighters capitalize on the UFO mystery when they can. Trice Road, which runs near the crash site on the north end of the village, was renamed Meteor Road, and the signs started to disappear as fast as the township could replace them. So Struble decided to get replicas made and sell them for $25 a pop.
"I just had an order last week for $800 worth of shirts," Struble said. "Over Christmas, sales were pretty healthy. I've had people come in here and buy $200 to $300 worth of shirts at a pop."
Struble said the shirts are so popular that people stop him whenever he wears one, and more and more of them are claiming they, too, saw the UFO.
"Whenever I go out shopping at the mall wearing one of our Kecksburg shirts, someone always pats me on the back and says, 'I was there,' " he said.
Not everyone believes
Not everybody is happy with the department's fundraising plans.
Ed Myers was Kecksburg's fire chief in 1965 and says the story of a glowing object hurling to Earth is bogus. He said the fire department is capitalizing on an incident that never happened and that "eyewitnesses" have changed their stories over the years.
Myers doesn't believe anything crashed into the woods.
"I was all over the woods and didn't see a thing," Myers said. "I went over there right away and stayed until 10 p.m. People were just after publicity."
While Struble said he doesn't believe in aliens, he does believe something crashed in Kecksburg that night.
"Something big did happen here," he said. "It's not little green men, but most likely a U.S. or Russian probe that went astray. Something came down, and they took something out of here."
For the fire department's sake, Comp hopes the government never explains what happened in Kecksburg or what was on the flatbed truck that night.
"The mystery of it is business for us," Comp said. "I hope they never find out what happened. It would break the bubble."
Beyond the stars
- The first report of a "flying saucer" over the United States came on June 24, 1947, from a private pilot in Mt. Rainier, Wash.
- Project Blue Book was the code name of an Air Force investigation into UFO sightings. Between 1952 and 1969, more than 12,000 sightings were investigated before the project ended. Left unexplained were 701 UFO sightings, including 18 in Pennsylvania.
- Nearly half of Americans think the government is hiding information from the public about the existence of UFOs, according to a 2000 Life magazine poll.
- Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan claimed to have seen a UFO.