WASHINGTON - Eyes were locked on the skies Saturday as a suspected Chinese spy balloon passed over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard - where local authorities warned civilians against taking potshots with rifles - before it was shot down when it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean.
Software engineer and storm chaser Brian Branch captured photographs of the balloon high above western North Carolina just hours before it was shot down.
He could see a payload hanging from the round, white balloon, which officials have said was about the size of three school buses.
It was shot down off the Carolina coast Saturday afternoon and an operation was launched to recover the debris. The Biden administration had previously hesitated to shoot the balloon because of risks to people on the ground from falling debris.
"I'm kind of surprised they didn't shoot it down over Montana,' Branch said.
There had been 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 initial 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 swept the nation 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 Governor 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 by 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."