The downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon just off South Carolina’s coast created a spectacle over one of the state’s tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheering.
The balloon was struck by a missile from an F-22 fighter just off Myrtle Beach, fascinating sky-watchers across a populous area known as the Grand Strand for its miles of beaches that draw retirees and vacationers.
Crowds gathered in neighbourhoods, hotel parking lots and beaches to watch the balloon hover, with some cheering just after it went down. The festive mood belied the seriousness of the situation, with law enforcement around the county of 366,000 warning people not to touch any debris and to instead call dispatchers.
Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, just inland of Myrtle Beach when she saw her neighbours gathered outside. Curious, she went to see what they were looking at. It was easy to spot the balloon in the cloudless blue sky and then what appeared to be fighter jets circling overhead as well.
After the strike, she could see the balloon start to fall apart and fall from the sky. “I did not anticipate waking up to be in a Top Gun movie today,” she said. The balloon hovered directly above the Hardy family as they checked into their oceanfront hotel in Myrtle Beach.
The family from Anderson joined several employees in the parking lot taking videos of the scene unfolding above before going up to their room ahead of the missile strike.
Logan Hardy, 12, said the moment of impact generated a “boom” that shook the building. His room’s balcony gave the middle-schooler a clear view of the debris dropping. “It looked like stars falling down,” he said, adding: “I will never forget this day.”
Some watchers rushed to nearby beaches as the balloon approached the ocean. Travis Huffstetler, who captured photos of the balloon, said the packed Garden City Beach almost looked like summertime on the chilly winter day with people looking skyward and taking pictures and videos on their phones.
When the balloon began crossing the water, Mark Doss, 54, drove a golf cart three blocks down from his home to Garden City Beach. There, Doss said he and his two teenage children spent 90 minutes watching the balloon strike and waiting in vain for debris to wash ashore. The sheer size of the white orb awed Doss, who said the approaching fighter jet looked like a little model airplane.
Doss recalled a “white puff of smoke” after the missile struck the balloon. “That one jet made a beeline straight to it — wham!” Doss said.

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