Australians flocked to their Wild West today seeking a rare bonanza - bits of Skylab.
While hundreds of souvenir hunters combed the west country's rugged outback for remains of the U.S. space station, dozens of irate Australians scolded the United States for allowing the space laboratory to strike their country.
Newspapers, businesses and private citizens offered lucrative prizes for chunks of Skylab metal, spurring a modern gold rush. An antique dealer in New South Wales outbid a San Francisco newspaper by a thousand Australian dollars in offering a reward for Skylab debris.
"I'm a bit patriotic I suppose," said Huntley Grant, the antique dealer. "It's about time somebody made the Yanks look silly for a change. They dropped this on us to save their own skins and now they want us to deliver it to their doorstep in 72 hours."
Echoing Grant's sentiments were the comments of an outraged housewife who called a newspaper in Perth.
"I think it stinks that they delayed the descent for 18 minutes so it missed them and hit us," she said. "I don't think our so-called American allies like us very much."
The largest trophy reported found was a 6-by-3 foot steel cylinder recovered near Rawlinna, on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, nerly 600 miles east of Perth.
Bill Norton, a telecommunications specialist for the postal service, said he was awakened by a booming noise, apparently the sound of the impact.
Norton, Laurie Hotstone and Peter Ralph headed come across it" beside the track about six miles from town.
"It was hard to see because it blended so well with the countryside," Norton said. "We almost fell over it. We knew it had to be from Skylab."
He said the cylinder was burned in places but pretty much intact. "It took two four-wheel-drive vehicles to haul it onto the trailer." The three men then set off on an exuberant, six-hour drive to the nearest sizable town, Kalgoorlie.
A U.S. Consulate spokesman, Chuck McGinley, said the find sounded authentic and was probably Skylab's docking cylinder.
Almost 300 miles to the southwest, in Grass patch, Enda Bowden said she heard a thundering rumble as the flaming Skylab passed overhead, and then a sound like that of nuts falling from a tree onto her farmhouse roof. After dawn she sent her son, Tom, up onto the roof, where he found four small pieces of a pumice-like substance, she said.
In Jerramungup, 10 miles farther west, farmer Brian Wisewoold brought a piece of burned fibrous material - supposedly Skylab debris - to a local police station, the newspaper The West Australian reported.
Wisewoold said he found the 5-by-8 inch fragment behind his sheep shearing shed.
The American space station ended its six-year odyssey at about 2 a.m. Australian time today, tumbling to earth in one of the world's most desolate areas, causing a spectacular display of fireworks in the night sky. No casualties or property damage have been reported.
U.S. scientists have assured the world that this will be the last such American-caused space scare. They say any future spacecraft as Skylab will be brough down under control or will be kept in orbit.
Many Australians were upset over a reported remark by a space official in Washington that Australia was a good place for the space station to come down because "there are only kangaroos there."
"It was stupid remark," consular officer McGinley said.
In a "Dear Jimmy" response to a message from President Carter expressing regrets for the fall of the space station. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser noted tongue-in-cheek that "receiving Skylab is an honor we would have happily foregone."
He said he would "happily" trade Skylab pieces for an increase in U.S. quotas on imported Australian beef.
Meanwhile, reports of Skylab sightings accumulated.
John Seiler, manager of a 343,000 -acre sheep and cattle rance just outside Balladonia in Noonoonia, which means "red rock" in an aborigine language, said he saw debris pass just 200 feet over his house.
"I could feel the concussions. It felt like an earth-quake. It shook everything around. You could feel AUSTRALIA, From A17> the tremors on the ground and it shook our house," Seiler said.
"We actually heard it going over the house. It was like a giant helicopter blade and you hear the pieces of metal windmilling through the air. One of them I would say was a very big piece. We were ready to duck for cover, it was that close.
"Even after this had finished, the sonic booms were here for over a minute and shook the house and for quite some time - about 15 minutes or more - the animals here were racing all over the place. The dogs were barking and going mad and the horses - the horses were galloping around in a panic for quite some time afterward.
"And for quite a while there was a strange smell in the air, likely freshly burned earth."
Another farmer, Ian Goldfinch of Hopetoun, said he saw the giant space station break up.
"It arrived over the horizon southwest of us very low . . . just a golwing ball coming straight for us and i was getting worried and I would say it broke up just as it started coming over the coast. It shattered into a thousand bright pieces."
For several editions of local papers, the hottest Skylab "find" was a strip of metal found on the 15th green of the Albany golf course.
Groundskeeper John Rowe stumbled upon the debris, packed his bag and hopped aboard a plane to Perth in a bid to get to San Francisco in time to beat the newspaper's deadline for bringing in Skylab pieces.
Rowe, 37 later was stunned to discover that he was victim of a hoax after William Hall, 54 admitted he had planted the piece of metal, which had been lying around his shop for months.
Yet Hall showed little regret for his joke. "I was'nt the only one involved and we did it partly in retaliation against the American scientists, as we didn't appreciate them deliberately deciding to put Skylab down in Australia," he said. CAPTION: Map, Skylab debris fell in a wide arc across Australia. By Dave Cook - The Washington Pos