AN ARTICLE YESTERDAY INCORRECTLY REPORTED THAT THE LAST TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE VISIBLE IN THE UNITED STATES OCCURRED IN 1979. A TOTAL ECLIPSE WAS VISIBLE IN HAWAII IN 1991. (PUBLISHED 08/11/99)
It may be the impending millennium, or the humid passions of late summer, or the media's doldrum-driven enthusiasms, but Wednesday's total eclipse of the sun is plunging a diagonal swath of Europe, the Middle East and South Asia into the shadows of a gentle madness.
Perhaps never in history have so many people had a chance to see the sun fully obscured for a couple of minutes by the moon and to feel their world turn cool and dark at noon.
Despite unclouded, nonhazardous live coverage of the event on television and online, millions of people are expected to crowd into southwestern England and along the coast of northeastern France for a glimpse of this millennium's last solar eclipse.
The "zone of totality" -- the pitch black of full solar obscurity -- will touch the southwestern tip of England at 11:11 a.m. local time and race at 1,767 mph across major parts of France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India before petering out over the Indian Ocean.
The eclipse is attracting the attention of followers of ancient religions as well as modern-day New Age travelers and other eclectic bands of sun worshippers. Muslim preachers in Iran called on the nation to pray, saying the eclipse was a "sign of God" that demands prayer from the faithful. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus will bathe in sacred rivers and lakes in India in the belief this will purify their souls.
Five million viewers are expected on the French coast alone, even as rumors spread that teeming crowds will be pushed from the fabled cliffs into the sea -- or, wilder still, will cause the cliffs to collapse. "We cannot forbid access to the cliffs," said Richard Brachais, a resigned city official in Fecamp, on the Normandy coast. Fecamp has the distinction of being the spot where the total eclipse will be visible longest in France.
Next to getting there, no question has obsessed the affected populations and governments as that of equipping hundreds of millions of people with special cardboard-and-plastic eyeglasses that protect against retina-ravaging sunburns. France appears to have been most farsighted in distributing ocular prophylactics.
Health officials estimate that 40 million pairs are circulating in France -- 60 percent of Europe's total, they say -- including more than 10 million distributed free in magazine promotions and by two French astronomical societies.
French cabinet ministers were pictured sporting the weird eyewear to build public awareness about the dangers of looking directly at the sun. But 700,000 pairs of Colombian-manufactured glasses had to be recalled in France because their lenses were made of the wrong material. The strong possibility that many people in Britain and France won't be able to see the eclipse because of cloudy or rainy weather appears not to have dampened popular ardor in the two countries. Police leave has been canceled in southwestern England, where officials expect up to 1 million people to clog the region's narrow, winding roads. Hotels have been booked for months in France, from the beaches of Normandy to the old battlefields of the Ardennes. Fecamp, whose population is expected to triple Wednesday to 75,000, will be closed to traffic from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Large trucks are banned from all French roads from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Many businesses are giving people in the affected zones the day off, either because the traffic will hamper their work or because the convergence in the skies is too rare and too important for anyone to miss. Charles de Gaulle was president of France when the last total eclipse was visible here in 1961, and another 82 years will pass before it happens again. The last total eclipse visible in the United States occurred in 1979.
In one of the most bizarre pre-eclipse events in a competitive field, French fashion designer Paco Rabanne has closed up shop in anticipation of an apocalyptic event -- loosely predicted by Nostradamus -- that he believes will coincide with the eclipse. An explosion of Russia's Mir space station over Paris, according to this scenario, will reduce the city to rubble. To demonstrate their serenity, a group of Rabanne's fellow Parisians -- named, approximately, Chuck the Apocalypse -- is staging a "survivors' aperitif" in front of the Rabanne boutique on the rue du Cherche Midi at the witching hour.
Many businesses elsewhere in affected parts of the world are giving employees a half-hour off to sky-gaze. Supervisors are being urged, in the unfortunate words of one German trade union official, "to turn a blind eye" to workers who slip out.
Tens of thousands of Indians traveled to Hindu holy places in advance of the eclipse, the United News of India reported. The agency said schools will close for two days beginning Wednesday in the northern city of Kurushetra because of the rush of pilgrims to the nearby sacred lakes of Sannihet and Brahm. In the holy city of Allahabad, thousands of devotees were arriving on the banks of the holy Ganges River.
Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti is staging a concert Wednesday in Bucharest, Romania, the only European capital in the path of the eclipse. The Romanian town of Ramnicu Valcea will have the honor of hosting the 1999 eclipse for the longest time -- it will be visible 11 seconds longer than in Fecamp.
That was reason enough for NASA administrator Daniel Goldin to lead a team of U.S. astronomers to Ramnicu Valcea to watch the phenomenon.
Researcher Daphne Benoit in Paris contributed to this report.