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Updated: Thursday, 25 Apr 2013, 10:18 AM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 27 Feb 2013, 6:04 PM EST
BUSTI, NY (WIVB) - Police say a legal explosive called Tannerite is responsible for a loud "boom" that rattled Chautauqua County in January. But scientists, law enforcement, and even the military have been able to identify the cause of similar booms in Western New York, since then.
On Sunday, January 13, starting at approximately 6:15 p.m., Chautauqua County dispatch was inundated with calls about a loud "boom." Residents called 911 to report the unusual sound. Some said it shook their houses. It certainly rattled the nerves of many residents in the area.
Calls came in from all across the southern part of the county.
That same night, viewers in Jamestown, Lakewood, Busti, Kennedy, Delevan, Ashville and elsewhere flocked to News 4's Facebook page, to talk about the deep, rumbling noise that they described as sounding like "thunder," "cannons firing," or "an explosion."
The next day, Lakewood-Busti Police offered an official explanation.
"The explosion that people heard originated out of Lawson Road, in the Town of Busti. It was an individual that had put a charge together with a little over 18 pounds of Tannerite while target-shooting," explained Sgt. Inv. Paul Gustafson, who personally interviewed the 20-year-old man.
Tannerite is the trademarked name for ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder. When mixed together, these two substances become explosive.
"It caused a considerable amount of noise and explosion," according to Gustafson.
The loud explosion was enough to shake buildings across southern Chautauqua County, even into northern Pennsylvania. People as far as 30 miles away reported hearing and feeling the blast, east to Clymer and west to Bradford, PA, Sgt. Gustafson said.
"[It's an] extremely dangerous situation, that this individual put himself and others into," both because of the large quantity of Tannerite and was used and the fact that the group was only about 150 yards away from the target, Sgt. Gustafson said. "Very, very lucky that at the time of the explosion, there wasn't someone seriously hurt or killed."
The 20-year-old man was never charged with a crime, because he didn't break any law. Despite the potential danger, Tannerite is 100% legal.
According to Tannerite's official website, the substance is unique because it remains stable until the moment it's hit with a bullet. Even after mixing, Tannerite won't go off just from being jostled around, dropped, thrown, or exposed to heat or flame. The only way to make it explode is to shoot it, using a high-power rifle, generally .223-caliber or higher.
The ammonium nitrate/aluminum combination is sold -- under Tannerite and other brand names -- in almost any sporting goods store, as well as on the internet. It's marketed for target-shooting, and mostly comes in one- to two-pound containers.
There's no limit to how much a person can buy.
Evans Police Chief Ernest Masullo is familiar with Tannerite. He's seen it detonated in those one- and two-pound increments, and says even that amount is "pretty loud."
"If it's used in a safe and cautious way, it's not a real big deal," Masullo explained. "It's when people start adding 20 pounds, 30 pounds, 50 pounds, 200 pounds... then it becomes a very high explosive. And then you'll see the concussion; you'll hear it and you'll feel it."
During our investigation, we teamed up with the ATF, to demonstrate how powerful Tannerite can be.
The explosion we detonated (see video on this page) used only four pounds of Tannerite. We couldn't replicate Busti boom, which used four-and-a-half times that amount, because ATF agents determined it simply wasn't safe.
Eighteen-and-a-half pounds of Tannerite exploding would look closer to a 1.25-pound C-4 detonation. C-4 is a standard military-grade explosive.
The 18.5 pounds of Tannerite blown up by the man in Busti "certainly will cause a crater in the Earth's surface. It will destroy a tree if it's taped to the tree, as it was in this situation. It'll cause an extreme amount of... noise and explosion. It'll cause a fireball," according to Sgt. Gustafson.
Cell phone video of the Busti boom, released to News 4 by the Lakewood-Busti Police, shows just such a fireball.
Tannerite falls under the same laws as other explosives, that are exempt for sporting use. It is not currently regulated, according to ATF Public Information Officer Charles Mulham, but that is not to say it won't be in the future.
Since that original Busti Tannerite boom, there have been sporadic reports of similar booms and shaking in Chautauqua County and in other areas which no one has been able to explain.
One such boom happened in the southern Erie County Town of Evans on Friday, January 18, Chief Masullo confirmed.
"Approximately 4:23 in the afternoon [January 18], we started receiving phone calls of a loud noise. Some of the people, on the call, described it as an explosion. Some described it as a 'boom,'" Chief Masullo told News 4.
"We have one person [who] deals in explosives; we called him. We called two other people that usually deal with this Tannerite. And no one, on that day, was doing anything," Chief Masullo went on.
"We have a gentleman that works for the people that have the gas wells in the area, and the oil. And he's out in the woods with his four-wheeler, when he checks the wells. On that day, he went back [and] checked his records; nothing was going on. He said there's no fracking going on in the area that would cause that noise."
Workers at Town Hall heard it. One person remarked that it sounded like a large metal dumpster container being dropped on the ground.
Tapes of 911 calls from that day and Evans Police radio transmissions, all released to News 4 by Masullo, further paint the mysterious picture.
"Evans 911, what's your emergency?" a dispatcher asks on one. The man replies, "Yeah, hi. We don't know, actually. There was a really loud boom. It sounded like it had come from the back of our house."
"We just heard it here, at the Town Hall, but we have no idea what it is," says the dispatcher. Then the caller, incredulously, "Really? You just heard it there too?"
"Could you please tell me, did you hear that noise?" asks a woman. "...the loud explosion? I don't see anything. It just, like, scared the heck out of me."
"We heard shooting for quite a while, and then a big explosion just now," another woman reported. "It shook the whole house."
These phenomena are not unique to Western New York. People all over the United States are hearing and feeling mysterious loud booms.
Booms in Clintonville, Wisconsin, made national headlines in March 2012.
Linda Moulton Howe, science and environment reporter for Earthfiles.com and an investigative reporter with Premiere Radio Networks, began investigating these booms in 2011. Since October 17, 2012, Howe has documented booms in 25 different regions across the country, from Massachusetts, to Alabama, to South Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Arizona, Utah, California and elsewhere.
Howe told News 4's Rachel Kingston that people describe the booms "as being something that shook either the bottoms of their feet, their legs, their houses, their windows. Many of the current reports have been that something is coming from the sky, which is confusing."
Some of these booms have been accompanied by huge bright flashes of light.
According to Dr. Mark Castner, director of the Braun-Ruddick Seismograph Station at Canisius College, "booms" can be associated with a lot of things, including an earthquake, a quarry blast, a building implosion, or "a sonic boom, generated by an aircraft flying at supersonic speeds."
Seismographs record visual evidence of these vibrations. At the same time, they're almost always recording what Castner calls "seismic noise."
"When the wind comes up, and that causes trees to sway in the wind or buildings to sway in the wind, that actually induces movement in the Earth," Dr. Castner said.
Under ideal circumstances, the "signatures" left by earthquakes, sonic booms and explosions can be distinguished. But it's not always easy to tell them apart.
"If you have a windy day, and you have an earthquake that is very weak by the time it gets to us, one is going to mask the other," explained Castner.
More and more people are starting to wonder what is causing these booms? Is Western New York part of something bigger, something yet unknown to even law enforcement and scientists?
So far, there are no answers to those questions.
"We did check all the specific flight times. We did not have any aircraft in the air over that area, at the times indicated," Major Andrea Pitruzzella, public affairs officer for the 914th Airlift Wing at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station said.
"There was not an earthquake; there was not a mine collapse; I didn't even see any quarry-blasting going on," Dr. Castner confirmed.
"We're unable to come up with any plausible explanation of what the noise was," Masullo, the Evans Police Chief, echoed.
Howe quoted what Dr. Jeffrey Braun, Ph.D., a physicist at University of Evansville-Indiana told she and local reporters there "'The geologists say, it's not in the ground. The Air Force says, it's not in the air. The astronomers say, it's not from space. So we're running out of options.'"