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chicagotribune.com >> Editorials

THEY'RE HERE!

( Or so we'd like to think. )

A purported UFO sighting at O'Hare gives flight to hopes that we're not alone


By Jon Hilkevitch
the Tribune's transportation reporter
Published January 7, 2007

It's rare for a newspaper story to emerge from the vast and dark unknown and hit at a primal level, tapping into the fact that many of us feel so alone and confused about why we exist, and giving us a chance to hope, to dream.

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Admittedly, those big thoughts were not on my mind when the director of a UFO-watching group first called to offer an exclusive Chicago angle on what might be the biggest story of all humankind--a visit by an alien spaceship.

No, ET had not phoned home. But, said Peter Davenport of the National UFO Reporting Center, this was "an excellent, stunning case involving a genuine UFO from some other part of our galaxy or our universe."

We've all read similar reports--and then put them back on the shelf--while waiting in the supermarket checkout line. I recall one tabloid front page announcing that aliens had abducted Newt Gingrich. Not surprisingly, they gave Newt back.

Covering UFOs seemed to be stretching the definition of my job, transportation reporting. I looked at the clock on the newsroom wall and decided to give Mr. Davenport two minutes. But he was onto something.

The UFO story, published Monday, became the most-read piece to appear on chicagotribune.com. It was the top story on the Tribune Web site for four straight days, garnering more than 1 million page views from people around the world.

The reaction is proof that we live in a curious world. Maybe a curious universe too.

It turns conventional notions about what people want to read and hear about on their head. And it lays bare the reality that huge numbers of people explicitly mistrust the government, the military establishment and the aerospace industry when it comes to UFO sightings and research.

In our first of many phone conversations, Davenport assured me that highly credible individuals spotted a flying saucerlike object Nov. 7, and that it hovered over a major site on my Tribune beat: O'Hare International Airport.

So I interviewed the witnesses and tracked down some additional observers--pilots, ramp workers, mechanics and management officials at United Airlines.

They were all dead serious about what they saw, and the accounts--whether made from the tarmac or from 25 feet up in the cockpit of a Boeing 777--were consistent.

The unidentified aerial phenomenon was dark gray and shaped like a disc, it hovered in a fixed position above Concourse C of the United Airlines terminal, and it vanished with a burst of energy that cut a hole in the overcast skies.

The fact that officials at United Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration initially denied any knowledge of the incident--despite evidence I had that they were well aware of it--made the story even more appealing.

Little did any of us know.

News organizations from a low-watt radio station in Delaware to a TV station in Australia phoned me to request interviews. Jay Leno cracked jokes on the "Tonight Show" about inebriated workers at O'Hare.

Ufologists contacted me in droves with thanks for treating the subject in a serious manner and congratulated the Tribune, as a leading member of the mainstream media, for publishing a story about an extraterrestrial sighting.

The reaction is perplexing and somewhat discouraging. But clearly it speaks to the persistent fascination with the possibility that we're not alone in the universe, and there are mysteries of our existence still to be unraveled.

Dominique Callimanopulos understands why the UFO story is so seductive.

"When I was doing UFO research, I found that the sightings hit most people in a very child-wonder place," Callimanopulos said. She assisted the late Dr. John Mack, who became infamous at Harvard Medical School for researching UFO and alien encounters.

"People think this visit will be some sort of answer or salvation, that beings from another world will be able to help us solve the mess we've made on this planet," said Callimanopulos, a board member of the John E. Mack Institute, founded in honor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning physician.

"Everyone at some deep level does wonder why we are here. That is why there are so many religions in the world and conflicting belief systems," she said. "If we were to find our cosmic friends, we would have a real family, finally."

It would be nice if physical evidence existed to substantiate the claims made at O'Hare on Nov. 7. Airport surveillance cameras are trained on the airfield, not the heavens, and FAA radar has so far turned up nothing unusual.

How is it that someone smuggled a camera cell phone into a Baghdad execution chamber to chronicle the hanging of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein last month, but no one among the thousands of airport workers and travelers at O'Hare snapped a picture for the cosmic family photo album?

The answer, along with an explanation about how the universe works, remains a mystery. We earthlings possess inquisitive minds, but we are, after all, only human.

----------

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune










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