(AP) – Eyes remained on the skies Saturday as a suspected Chinese spy balloon slowly drifted toward the U.S. Atlantic Coast and remained in clear view over the Carolinas, where authorities warned people not to take potshots at the floating orb with their rifles.
Software engineer and storm chaser Brian Branch captured photographs of what he believes was the balloon just after daybreak high above western North Carolina.
He could see a payload hanging from the round, white balloon, which officials have said is about the size of three school buses.
The Pentagon has been closely tracking the balloon and the Biden administration is now moving ahead with a plan to shoot it down over the Atlantic. The administration previously hesitated to shoot the balloon because of the risk to people on the ground. Branch saw no signs of military aircraft in the area.
“If they’re not worried about it to where they’re going to let it float over for three days, then I’m not going to let it bother me too much either,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised they didn’t shoot it down over Montana.”
There were reports of sightings throughout upstate South Carolina, including Greenville and Spartanburg, and suburban Charlotte in North Carolina.
The maneuverable balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska early this week and it wasn’t acknowledged by government officials until Thursday, a day after commercial flights were temporarily halted at the airport in Billings, Montana and people on the ground saw the balloon seemingly loitering high above the city.
China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed.
In Congress, Republicans pounced on the decision not to shoot it down over rural Montana as a sign of weakness on the part of the Biden administration.
But in York County, South Carolina, not far from the North Carolina border, the county sheriff’s office advised against anyone trying to take out the balloon on their own.
“Don’t try to shoot it!!,” the sheriff’s office tweeted Saturday as the balloon passed over the region at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). “Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.”
The fascination with the balloon that has swept the nation has also spawned fake videos that purported to show it being shot down.
Those included an unverified video out of Billings that purported to show a “massive explosion” over the city Friday evening, two days after the balloon passed over. The video was picked up and broadcast by Fox News, where Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said in an interview with Tucker Carlson that he was “monitoring the situation.”
It was viewed millions of times before local officials batted down speculation that a Chinese balloon had been shot down. The city of Billings issued a statement that declared “there have not been any explosions in, around, or across #Montana.”
Another video purported to show the balloon brought down in North Carolina on Friday afternoon — about the same time people reported seeing it above Missouri.
By Saturday morning in Polkville, North Carolina, Branch — the storm chaser — said he was able to watch the balloon for about an hour and 15 minutes before it drifted into the path of the sun.
“It went east to the point where the sun blocked it out for me. Nothing around it, nothing barring it and no rednecks in North Carolina shooting at it,” he said. “I let it just pass on by. If it was spinning, if it was a tornado, I would have chased it.”