It all starts with this radar antenna, 10 stories in the air. The steel behemoth, shaped like a jai alai cesta and painted red and white, rises from a concrete tower and lords over an abandoned, weed-choked military base at the easternmost tip of Long Island. From this radar dish came the deadly rays that altered thoughts, that ripped a hole in the time-space continuum, that fired the particle beam that shot down all the airplanes.
Or so go the conspiracy theories.
Over the past three years, a handful of airplanes have crashed into the Atlantic not far from here: TWA 800, Swissair 111, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Piper and now, EgyptAir 990. This point lies below a busy air corridor that, statistically, sees no more airline crashes than others. But the crashes have remained largely unexplained. And when clusters of tragic, random events happen, the human mind tries to make order out of chaos.
This is how the myths begin.
They arise from the Internet, where fact and fiction mix with an alarming regularity--and from local legend surrounding the old Air Force station. At least 15 Internet sites are devoted to the mysterious place and, since the most recent crash early Sunday morning, the dialogue on them has crackled.
"Uh-oh," wrote one conspiracy buff this week. "Has it happened again?"
Montauk Air Force Station sprawls atop a windy bluff, a few miles east of Montauk village. It was built during World War II to watch for Nazi U-boats. Before that, it was a military site called Camp Hero, a place where Spanish-American War veterans came to die of typhus. During the Cold War, it was a radar station, scanning for enemy aircraft. The base closed in 1981 and has been empty since.
But the tower remains.
A black void against a star-filled sky, it marks the site of what some suspect was, or still is, a secret government project that the conspiracy-minded have labeled "the Montauk Project."
Mostly, though, it is a thing that people can point to when dreadful and baffling things happen, like when airplanes fall from the sky.
The Block Island Triangle
"Of course, if a plane crashes, they're going to blame it on Montauk," says Colin Shea, 25, a waiter in town who has explored the abandoned base.
One night this week at Shagwong restaurant, it's the mostly year-round crowd, dominated by fishermen. Shea finishes his shift and joins a friend for a beer.
Everyone here, it seems, either saw the TWA 800 crash or knows someone who did or helped pull bodies out of the water. Now, another awful crash has happened. For years, Camp Hero has always been just up the road, a community fixture. For years, there were rumors that "something" was going on "up there." For years, that huge radar dish spun, day and night.
"It's hard not to wonder if something's still going on," Shea says.
Indeed. Rational folk who've never heard of the Montauk Project start to take notice when a cluster of airplanes goes down in the same approximate area over a short period of time.
Across the bar, a friend chimes in: "It's the Block Island Triangle."
Some folks laugh. Others don't.
It's not really a triangle, as locals describe it, but the area of sea from west of Montauk, up to Block Island (15 miles north and east) and out to Nantucket (90 miles east), is where several major airplane disasters have occurred.
No one really believes in a Bermuda or a Block Island Triangle . . .
. . . still . . .
Shea has friends, he says, who've taken this Montauk Project thing a little too seriously. "It's like they've slipped into a cult," he says, scouring Internet conspiracy sites, sneaking onto the base, theorizing constantly.
The local library has a handful of books on the topic. They're "very popular with young men," reports librarian Charlotte Schorr. She seems like a rational woman. She is asked: How do myths like the Montauk Project get started?
Turns out, she has a story.
Schorr's sister moved to Montauk in 1972, when Camp Hero was still operational, and lived within sight of the rotating radar tower. It was annoying to play the radio in her house, because each time the radar beam swept past her house, the radio would bzzzt out, losing reception for a few seconds.
A building block of myth.
Curiosity-seekers are warned away from the 415-acre base, but not very seriously. The gates are unlocked; holes in cyclone fences are left unrepaired. So you walk in, despite the "trespassers will be prosecuted" signs.
On a brisk day earlier this week, the wind whips and whistles through the power lines of Camp Hero. Strange things have been sighted and heard here, go the legends. Large, aggressive deer. Video cameras. Armed guards dressed all in black.
So you listen and you watch as you walk along the base's cracked asphalt roads. Rusted exhaust fans spin in the wind. Aluminum Venetian blinds twist and screech angrily through broken window panes. Always, the radar tower looms above the trees, a silent sentry.
The base itself is a collection of industrial-looking steel and concrete buildings and dilapidated houses. During its heyday in the 1960s, fewer than a hundred airmen were stationed here. They had picnics and gave tours to local Boy Scout troops. The base was shut in 1981 and eventually handed over to the New York state park system. Officially, it is an "undeveloped" state park, said a parks spokesman, and it awaits funding that would decide its fate.
It is impossible not to get spooked here, even in the daylight. On the Internet, people who've sneaked onto the base talk about "feeling watched" there.
The Montauk Project became widely known in conspiracy circles after the 1992 publication of "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time," by Preston Nichols and Peter Moon, in which Nichols claims he was an administrator on the base's mind-control and time-altering experiments in the '70s. The book--and two follow-ups--are similar in tone and credibility to the 1970s "Chariots of the Gods" books alleging that aliens built the pyramids.
Three years ago, after the crash of TWA 800, the conspiracy Internet chat groups lit up. TV newsman Pierre Salinger came out of left field with his alleged photograph of a phantom missile downing the airliner--but that was nothing compared with the conspiracy theories surrounding the Montauk Project.
The story reads like a script rejected from "The X-Files" for being too weird:
In 1943, the U.S. military experimented with high-voltage fields on a destroyer anchored near Philadelphia to try to make it invisible to enemy radar. (Not even this much is true, according to the U.S. Navy, which has devoted a Web site to denying the "Philadelphia Experiment.") Instead of just making the ship invisible to radar, the military made the ship completely invisible and teleported it through space and time. After the war, the experiments were moved to remote Montauk.
The story gets stranger.
The U.S. government tunneled deep under the spit of land, installing a bunker-and-tunnel system. Then it began experimenting on humans, using powerful rays to attempt mind control. A huge particle accelerator was built to power a death ray. It was, after all, the Cold War.
Sometime in 1983, the experiments went horribly awry and a hole was ripped in the space-time continuum, threatening to explode the planet if the project was not shut down. It was, saving the Earth.
Of course, no military records of any of this exist. But vestiges remain, say the suspicion-minded: an electrical interference that causes airplane instruments to go crazy. An energy ribbon that rips through airplanes if they pass over at the wrong time.
It's scientific hokum but a good ghost story.
This week, after the EgyptAir crash, the chat groups re-energized. One conspiracy buff wrote: "From some reports I have seen, the flight path took them right over Montauk. . . . one might guess, jamming equipment was mentioned in the Montauk books as testing equipment at Camp Hero. A little food for thought, draw your own conclusions."
The postings were by no means unanimous in their conspiracy--some simply spoke to the human need for answers:
"How come virtually all of the information available to us about the Montauk Project comes from Preston Nichols and Peter Moon? Come to think of it, if it wasn't for their books, none of us would have ever heard of this whole thing. Makes me kind of wonder if we've been duped by a couple of writers and not the U.S. government."
No Fear? Back on the base, the wind plays tricks with the ears. Is that a car? Swivel and look behind. Only the trees, being blown about.
Nope. Wind banging a door open and shut.
Suddenly, a vehicle appears. Instant jolt of fear. Dead stop. But it's a silver station wagon. How dangerous can it be?
Not dangerous at all, it turns out. The station wagon is driven by Maggie Donnelly, a garrulous retired Suffolk County cop, as friendly as Santa and as sensible as smart shoes.
"Get in," she says. She's driving around the base looking for her husband, George, to give him an automobile part. Suddenly, Camp Hero is looking less scary. Around a couple more corners and there's George, a short, gray-haired fellow with a puckish smile. He's employed for the state park service, and works in a garage on the abandoned base, maintaining the mowers that tend the place. Currently, though, he's working on the family car. Maggie hands her husband some brake pads in a box.
"He's the only thing that's spooky around here," she teases, getting back into the station wagon.
But, after a minute, she turns serious. There are indeed some dark things on Long Island, some reasons to be suspicious of the government. But they're not from another plane of existence.
During the Cold War, the eastern half of Long Island was a key site of the military industrial complex. There was a torpedo testing site in Montauk, and a huge Grumman aircraft plant 50 miles west. Adjacent to that is Brookhaven National Laboratory, which conducts experiments with ion colliders and particle accelerators. Recently, the lab acknowledged the presence of radioactive plutonium particles in the nearby Peconic River. A couple of years ago, the Energy Department reported that radioactive tritium had been seeping into groundwater for 12 years. Long Island has high rates of breast cancer, and elevated radiation levels have been found in the teeth of Long Island children born after 1980.
The state park system would like to turn Camp Hero into a functioning park, but first the place needs to be cleaned. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last summer found asbestos, possible traces of PCBs, lead paint and spent artillery shells.
Also, the corps reported, there is not enough information on what happened at the base to rule out the presence of chemical weapons such as nerve gas.
Once again, a mystery remains.
A Beachhead for Suspicion
Frank Tuma, 75, has been buying and selling real estate on Montauk his entire adult life. As a youth, he hauled steel on his shoulder at Camp Hero to build the emplacements for the 16-inch guns aimed offshore. At one point, the government owned more than half of the town's property and times were good for local business. As for the conspiracy theories, forget it. It's just a closed military base. And, he adds, prime beachfront property.
David Rutkowski, 36, owns John's Drive-In in town. He has lived here his whole life, and has poked around the derelict Camp Hero buildings.
"They build up a base, say this is the place, spend all that effort, then just abandon it?" he says. "It's a little, you know . . . " He modulates his right hand up and down, indicating that the whole thing seems a little fishy to him.
'Something Is Going On'
On Tuesday, the popular New York City afternoon radio show "Opie and Anthony" was hashing over current events. The discussion turned to the crash of EgyptAir 990. Instantly, naturally, TWA 800 and JFK Jr.'s flight were invoked. All lumped together, it sure sounded suspicious. This is what humans do--they look for patterns, they seek order in random events. "Something is going on at the other end of the island," said a caller. Opie and Anthony agreed.
And the Montauk myth grew a little more.
CORRIDOR OF CONSPIRACY
Plane crashes in the Montauk vicinity.
TWA Flight 800
July 17, 1996
Plane: 767-300 ER
John F. Kennedy Jr. flight
July 16, 1999
Plane: Piper Saratoga II
Swissair Flight 111
Sept. 2, 1998
NOTE: John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane originated from Essex County Airport in New Jersey.