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Missile Launch Alarms, Amazes County Residents

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From Staff and Wire Reports

A missile launched Monday night from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County lit up the sky across Southern California with a multicolored contrail seen as far away as Phoenix, Ariz.

The unarmed missile, a Minuteman II, was designed to release nine target objects that will be tracked by another missile, said an official at the air base.

Lake Forest resident Jerry Derloshon said he and his wife were leaving a club shortly after 8:30 p.m. when they saw the missile streak into the air.

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“We both saw this incredible white light, and then the trail became squiggly,” Derloshon said. “It looked like a kid took a piece of chalk on a blackboard and drew it straight up, then ran his fingers over it and obliterated it.”

Some observers who saw the vapor said they were concerned that an explosion might have taken place. But the launch went as planned, said base officials and Jerry Acosta, regional operations officer for the Federal Aviation Administration in Lawndale.

The launch was the third of the so-called Multi-Service Launch System. The first was in December and the second in January.

Police stations across Orange County said they received numerous telephone calls from residents asking about the lights in the sky.

“We found out from the state Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento that it was a missile, [and] so as long as it didn’t land on anybody . . . we’re not going to worry about it,” said Lt. Rich Paddock of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Others were mesmerized by the dazzling display overhead.

In Villa Park, people leaving a City Council meeting stopped to exclaim over the oddly shaped rainbow. “It’s beautiful,” resident Sherry Zakowicz said.

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Senior Master Sgt. Gordon Vanvleet at the Air Force base said the launch was planned but the light show was not.

“What you saw was probably the effects of ‘twilight phenomena,’ ” he said. “That is created when unburned missile fuel and water left in the wake of the missile freeze in the upper atmosphere. Those frozen particles reflect the light. Really, the sun has to be at just the right angle--just after dusk.”

“I’d say we had hundreds of calls, Vanvleet said. “If it was up to me, we’d never do it this way again.”

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