The last thing Tim Walker and his then–12-year-old daughter Carolyn expected that evening when they began rolling their trash bins into the driveway of their Bethel home was to become overnight internet sensations. But it all happened in a flash—more precisely, a series of 13 bright red-and-orange flashes filling a broad swath of the southwest sky on Sunday, January 12.
The event was captured on less than 20 seconds of video by the family’s garage door security cam and promptly posted by Walker to Facebook. Within a few weeks, his post of the still-unexplained light show had been viewed nearly 70,000 times by users as far away as China and garnered 139 comments and 256 shares. It also drew an offer from licensing company Viral Hog to represent Walker in sharing the video with other media outlets.
“It’s kind of crazy how big it’s gotten,” says the 45-year-old Bethel native, who’s an IT consultant and teacher. In addition to local TV coverage, the story was picked up by the Drudge Report and newspapers in Lexington, Kentucky; Charlotte, North Carolina; the United Kingdom; and Germany—not to mention dozens of websites devoted to UFOs and other mysterious sightings. And it all happened to someone who says he normally “just posts funny dog and funny cat pictures because my daughter loves them” and gets about one or two Facebook notifications a day.
For several days after posting the video, Walker says, “Every five minutes somebody shared it or commented on it.” Carolyn, of course, became an instant mini-celebrity at Bethel-Tate Middle School for her local TV interviews. Her seventh-grade STEM teacher showed the video for class discussion. Their conclusion? “They just say it’s aliens now,” Carolyn says.
Accompanying her father as she often does on “garbage night,” Carolyn was the first to notice the low-hanging red-orange-pink flashes of light through the wooded lot southwest of their two-story brick home in Bridle Path Estates. In the video, she calls to her father, who looks up and is stunned by what he sees, losing his grip on the rolling trash bin. Meanwhile, the family’s two rescue dogs—Leo, a 2-and-a-half-year-old German Shepherd, and Virgil, an 8-year-old Labrador mix—race in circles and tussle with each other in front of the garage. A number of Facebook users commented on how the strange flashes must have affected the dogs, but Walker pooh-poohs the idea. “That’s how they act all the time,” he says, especially since the family had just come home that evening from visiting Walker’s in-laws in Mt. Orab.
“If you watch the video, you hear my daughter and me talking and you hear the dogs fighting,” he says. “But that’s the only sound on the video. It’s dead silent, which is weird, because when you see something like that you expect sound.”
Whatever they were, the flashes caused a two-minute power outage in hundreds of homes in the area around the same time. Kat Carmosino, an Amelia resident, commented on Facebook that “when the power went out, there was the light show, the floor was vibrating, and there was a humming noise. It was really odd.” By slowing down the video, viewers can see a series of 12 quick pulses, each one brighter than before, followed by a long pause and then the brightest flash on the 13th and final pulse. Cue the Twilight Zone intro.
Online speculation on the cause of the mystery flashes has ranged from the mundane to the extraterrestrial. A transformer blowout. Heat lightning. A meteor. Testing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, which, after all, was headquarters for Project Bluebook, the Air Force investigation into UFOs during the 1960s. And, perhaps only half-jokingly, an alien visitation.
All but the last explanation appear to have been ruled out by local first responders, energy suppliers, and meteorologists. FOX19 reported that Clermont County Emergency Management had no explanation but did hear from lots of people reporting the flashes. Ditto Bethel Police. Duke Energy told reporters that 584 customers in the area lost power for two minutes just before 7 p.m. that night, but their crews found no blown transformers or line issues in the area. An astronomer told FOX19 a meteor would have flashed above the clouds, not below them. As for lightning, the station reported the nearest strike at the time was hundreds of miles away.
Walker, a former Army medic with a master’s degree in information technology, says he’s “too logical” to suspect an interplanetary flyby caused the puzzling flashes. But, he says, “I never saw anything like it before,” including flare explosions while he was in the Army. “My first thought in my head, and this was around the time of the Iran [firing missiles into Iraq] scare, was, Oh my God, we’re getting invaded.”
On that Sunday evening, Walker estimated that the flashes were about 6 to 8 miles away in the direction of New Richmond and the Ohio River. Using the compass on his iPhone, he spotted the center of the flashes at 236 degrees southwest of his home. He suspected the old Beckjord Power Station in New Richmond, which was closed in 2014 and now has 10 billion pounds of coal ash stored in four ponds along a bank of the Ohio River. Coal ash is produced mainly from burning coal in power plants and can cause cancer after continued long-term ingestion and inhalation. Fly ash, a powdery byproduct of the coal-burning process, can be highly combustible.
Viewed on a map, however, Walker’s compass direction more clearly points to the Zimmer Power Station near Moscow, where Charah Solutions of Louisville has a contract to remove coal ash. A phone call to the office of Scott Sewell, chief executive of Charah Solutions, wasn’t returned.
Ohio EPA officials responded in an e-mail that “fly ash is not being re-moved from the Zimmer Power Station. Gypsum that has been stockpiled at the facility is being hauled out for land application on farms or manufacturing wallboard.” Gypsum is not combustible in any form. The e-mail continued, “Also, regarding reports of flashes on Jan. 12, Ohio EPA’s emergency response unit had no emergency calls that evening from Clermont County.” Likewise, Chief Kevin Riley of the Central Joint EMS-Fire District said his EMS squads had not responded to any calls at the Zimmer plant for the whole of January.
So the flashes remain a mystery. But it’s not the first time strange lights have been reported from Bethel. The National UFO Reporting Center, an internet wiki where people can post descriptions of their sightings anonymously, lists 11 unexplained events in the Bethel area since 2004. Almost a year prior to what was recorded on Walker’s video, a motorist on the way to a school event around 6 p.m. on January 25, 2018, reported “three orange lights in the sky” that lasted about a minute. “They would move along, and then stop. . . . Then a fourth light appeared, as if coming out of one of the other lights. They moved up and back in the sky, then just disappeared. These lights were orange in color and sphere-shaped. I sat there in the parking lot I had pulled into, waiting to see if they would reappear, and they did not.”
The truth is out there. Somewhere. Perhaps waiting for all of us to take out the trash.