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Fire in the Sky 

"The vast majority of phone calls I receive are prank calls from teenagers with cell phones," says Peter Davenport. Sometimes the pranks come less than 20 minutes apart. Sometimes they last all through the night. They've been getting more frequent recently, and even if they weren't, there would still be the legitimate calls to worry about. Davenport gets dozens of them some days, all from people who've experienced something they can't explain. Hovering lights. Strange sounds. A feeling they've lost hours from their lives. "The phone will ring at all hours of the day and night," he says.

Then, as if on cue, the phone rings.

With a gesture that seems to say, voila, Davenport rises and crosses the few steps from kitchen to office. "National UFO Reporting Center, Peter Davenport speaking," he answers. The caller is a retiree living in a gated community in Florida. The man identifies himself as ex-military and describes being awakened near dawn by a bright light streaming in his kitchen window. He says he believes it was too intense to be a plane or a meteor. There was a low rumble that shook the house and nearly knocked his wife out of bed. The experience, he says, terrified him.

Davenport jumps in with questions. Where was the object in the sky? What color was the light? How low was it to the horizon? After 14 years of calls like this, the questions are second nature. He wants to rule out the obvious explanations. Was this a meteor? A plane? Another prank maybe? Was it the planet Venus? That's a good one to rule out early. Nothing gets people crying "unidentified flying object" like Venus sitting prominently in a clear, early morning sky. Up to 95 percent of calls are dismissed as bogus, Davenport says wearily. The other 5 percent keep him going.

Davenport is the director of the National UFO Reporting Center [NUFORC], a 24-hour hotline for UFO sightings. His unpretentious two-bedroom apartment in Harrington, Wash., is its headquarters. Calls from all over the world funnel themselves, day and night, through this tiny scabland town 40 miles west of Spokane and into the phone in his office.

A converted bedroom, the office is bedecked with little more than a desk, a bookshelf and a small television with VCR. It sits behind the kitchen while his bedroom occupies the space behind a sitting room that looks mostly un-sat-in.

It's a modest life for a self-made millionaire and former Russian translator, but it's the one he chose in 1994 when he agreed to take over NUFORC. Through a mutual acquaintance, Davenport was told that founder Robert Gribble, after 20 years, was planning to simply let NUFORC, which receives as may as 20,000 calls a year, slip into non-being. "I felt very strongly," Davenport recalls in the terse, dispassionate way in which he often discusses his motivations, "that the Center needed to continue."

In what must now seem like the swashbuckling prelude to a life of monastic devotion and nearly endless frustration, Davenport studied biology and Russian at Stanford in the '70s, after working as a translator and interpreter against the Red Army and before grad school at the University of Washington led him to a career in science. In 1985, he founded the Seattle-area biotech company BioSyn Inc. He sold it in 1994 for a mint, taking on full time the task of fielding and documenting every UFO sighting he comes across.

The work he's done in the decade and a half since is mostly thankless, but his rigorous adherence to the scientific method and years of persistence have earned him a place of high esteem in the UFO community. Jan Harzan, on the national board of the Mutual UFO Network, one of the oldest and largest UFO investigative bodies, considers Davenport an "intelligent, honest individual, driven to get at the truth." Peter Davenport, it's known, is obsessed with the data. He doesn't spend much time daydreaming about the what-if scenarios of his research. How could he? He has yet to answer his fundamental question: Are we alone in the universe or are we not?

By sticking to that question, Davenport's influence has spread beyond UFO circles as well. He's become a kind of divining rod, helping the general public separate provable fact from stargazing speculation. In articles written in small town papers, you'll usually find the local ufologist giving his or her stamp of approval to a UFO event. You'll then often find a quote from Davenport giving his stamp of approval to the ufologist.

In the last few months, local papers have given way to national ones. In mid-May, when the Chicago Tribune reported that the director of the Vatican Observatory had declared it OK for Catholics to believe in aliens, one of the reporter's first calls was to Davenport. Weeks earlier, the Los Angeles Times had run a front-page story on Davenport written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tomas Alex Tizon. If there's such a thing as a crossover star in ufology, Peter Davenport, age 60, is it.

For his next trick, Davenport has devised a plan, using technology that exists today, to track UFOs when they enter our atmosphere. It's called passive radar. Relatively simple to build and relatively inexpensive, passive radar produces data that won't rely on eyewitness accounts. It will be digital, indelible and, Davenport believes, incontrovertible. "For the first time in our history," he says, "we have all the raw materials to end the debate." Now he just needs to convince other believers to help him build it.

"Sir, this is an incredibly compelling story," Davenport says. He has finished questioning the man from Florida and is pleased with his answers. "Please, take the time today, before it goes out of your mind, to file a report on our Web site."

The man promises to type something up this afternoon. Then the line sits silent for a moment. "I just want to say again," the man begins, "I've always been skeptical of these kinds of things, but this scared my wife and I to death." There's an audible tremble in the man's voice and something like a hanging question at the end.

Fear -- a common feature in the voices of Peter Davenport's callers -- is useful and irritating. It tells Davenport the caller is serious and that he or she has been left terror-struck by the otherworldliness of the encounter. People tend, though, to want to talk out that kind of terror. They want to give voice to their fears. Most of all, perhaps, they want to be assured they aren't crazy.

But Peter Davenport isn't interested in calming fears. "All I'm interested in are alien ships from another part of the galaxy." He is a scientist fully; there's not time to be a therapist, too. He wants to glean the data, as precisely as possible, and he wants to move on with his day.

"I thank you again for your report, sir," Davenport says with sincerity while still easing out of the conversation. "I'm terribly grateful."

For Peter Davenport, this is a single call -- a hell of a good one, "definitely in the top 5 percent," he says, but still a single call, like so many others. In his experience, UFO sightings from a person or two don't even register as a blip on the general public's radar. Even the biggest, most compelling sightings often only register for the briefest moments.

On Friday, August 25, 1995, just after midnight, a massive spheroid object appeared in the skies near Hamilton, Ontario, a town on a neck of land between lakes Erie and Ontario. The object was first seen fleeing south across Lake Erie, stopping minutes later some 70 miles south of the lake, just beyond the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Peter Davenport, on the job almost exactly a year, took eyewitness reports for the next few days from 11 different locations. Niles, Ohio. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Monticello, New York. The sightings happened on every side of the event -- north, south, east, west -- and the similarity of the accounts is staggering. Each witness described a similar, bright object moving more or less north to south. Everybody except one described the event as happening between 12:39 and 12:44 am. Everybody except one described the object as perfectly spherical. The woman from Niles, Davenport recalls, "said it looked just like a hamburg." Close enough.

For a man as driven by data as Peter Davenport, sightings don't get much better than the night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The number of eyewitnesses alone is staggering. The way the stories hang together, he says, is truly remarkable.

The kicker, though, is a tape shot by a television crew in Hamilton showing the object, massive, hovering above the clouds, as it moved south over the waters of Lake Erie into the United States. Midway through, a pinprick of light appears near ground level and shoots upward, seeming to join with the larger object. From what Davenport has been able to piece together, the only TV station that ran the footage at the time was the station that shot it. He only discovered it years later when he received a copy in the mail. "A woman claims to have copied it off a television broadcast in Texas at 2:30 in the morning," he says, annoyed.

It angers Davenport that no one outside of Ontario and perhaps Texas has been shown the footage, and he returns often to what he feels are linked topics: the blindness of the American people and the apathy of the media. "If it had been Britney Spears in an advanced state of undress," he says, "we would have been seeing it for months."

That indifference is immensely frustrating for Davenport -- one of two topics that cause his expressive, throaty baritone to rise to a pained yelp -- but he believes he can shatter people's apathy. Existing passive radar technology, he believes, can present new, less easily ignorable data simply and cheaply. It's being used now by the University of Washington to study the northern lights. The University's system not only detects meteor trails and airplanes -- without really trying -- it can tell size and speed and altitude, meaning it can easily tell them apart (see illustration, next page).

If he could implement a network of similar radar sites across the country, Davenport believes the resulting data would change the world. "It completely re-engineers our perception of who we are," he says. The stumbling block now, inexplicably to his mind, is convincing other ufologists and believers that such an undertaking is worth their time.

Davenport starts to get into that, but the phone rings again. The caller is a young man from Minneapolis. He says he saw some lights through the sunroof of his buddy's car. Davenport seems skeptical from the get-go.

lf the apartment in Harrington is NUFORC's headquarters, Missile Site No. 6 is its filing cabinet. It's also the only reason Peter Davenport lives anywhere near Harrington. He'd spent the previous decade holed up in an apartment in Seattle's University District, more or less contentedly manning the hotline, when he received a call that a decommissioned Atlas missile site was for sale. He knew the place needed work. In a previous visit he found standing water and debris everywhere. "It sort of scared me really," he says, but his desire to own a missile site verged on the primal. "I like strong things." He bought it within 24 hours, paying about $100,000 to the son of the previous owner, long-haul truck driver Ralph Benson, best known for killing and dismembering a state auditor.

The site was built to withstand a nuclear blast, so it's perfect storage for Davenport's call logs and UFO reports. There are a quarter-million reports in all by his estimation, all organized by date, beginning with August 24, 1994. Some days he wonders what it adds up to. More than 5,000 days have passed since he took over NUFORC, days as full of hope and passion as frustration and feelings of futility. Days that, in moments of self-doubt, Davenport worries have been wasted trying to assert a question the majority of people aren't interested in asking: Are we alone in the universe or not?

The plan was to renovate the missile site and live in it year round, but it was in such a state of disrepair he had no choice but to take the apartment in Harrington. Now that he's had a couple years to think about it, Davenport doubts he'll ever live here. "I prefer being a member of a community," he says. "It gets pretty damn lonely out here."

Through the sunroof, says the caller from Minneapolis, he saw lights that moved. Some moved independently of each other, he says, others moved in unison.

Davenport asks for the color of the lights, their placement in the sky, and the duration of the sighting. The kid says they were bright, and, you know, way up there. He says he watched them for hours.

"Did you happen to take any pictures?" Davenport asks, his voice now carrying a tinge of disinterest. He hadn't. "I regret to tell you, sir, that what you saw was almost definitely not a UFO," Davenport says, but encourages the man to file a report anyway.

Over faint protests, Davenport thanks the man and quickly hangs up, then explains why he dismissed the sighting. It occurred near a heavily populated metropolitan area and supposedly lasted for hours. If it had been a truly legitimate sighting, Davenport would have gotten another call from that area. At least one.

Davenport says he has no plans to give up NUFORC, but he admits the bogus 95 percent of calls weigh heavier now than they used to. He's never had a ton of time to deal with spurious claims. Now that he's a Republican candidate for the Washington State Legislature in the 7th district, he has even less. The questions posed by UFO sightings, though, remain transcendent.

"The instant we become aware there is other intelligent life I think it compels us to reassess everything we have learned on the earth to this point," Davenport says. "Where did we come from? How did we get here? What is our purpose? All of these questions are suddenly cast in an entirely different light."

That light found Davenport as a boy, as he sat watching a film at a drive-in theater from the passenger's side of his parents' '53 Studebaker. He didn't see it at first. "People were yelling and running and gesticulating into the sky," he says. "People walked in front of the car, blocking the screen, looking up to my right." So he did too. What he saw was an object the size of the full moon, red like a traffic signal and shaped like the CBS logo. His mother saw it. His father did too, while on-shift at the nearby St. Louis International Airport. Between the theater and the airport, Davenport says, there were "certainly hundreds and more like thousands of witnesses. I can't emphasize enough just how dramatic the event was."

For people who have experienced UFOs -- who believe in their bones that what they have seen is real and also unexplained -- questions of where we came from and how we got here reach beyond science, touching sociology, religion, philosophy, existence itself.

Peter Davenport's search for evidence of UFOs, then, becomes Jobian. These 5,000 days at the helm of NUFORC have been as much an act of faith as a process of science. After a long pause Davenport says, "You're beginning to understand my frustration with the world."

"I don't understand why people haven't been cutting each other's throats to get at this!"

Peter Davenport believes anyone who can definitively answer the UFO question would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize. Looking at a list of past winners, it's hard to argue. Proving that intelligent life exists outside our planet has to be at least as important as Percy Williams Bridgman's "invention of an apparatus to produce extremely high pressures," say, or the collected works of Rudyard Kipling, which led to Nobel prizes for their creators.

It's inexplicable to him, then, why physical scientists, engineers and ufologists wouldn't be clamoring to work on his passive radar project.

In Davenport's mind, it'll blow the lid off, nullifying the inconsistencies of eyewitness accounts. It takes the issue beyond "Oh, I saw a UFO," to "Why did this object take a 90-degree turn at 20,000 feet?" Davenport says.

The result is hard data "that you can replay, projecting onto a screen something detected by a system that doesn't lie."

Here, though, the ufologists become the skeptics. Even if unambiguous data like that existed -- definitively showing objects behaving the way nothing from Earth can -- some ufologists, even Davenport's friends, worry it won't be enough to create the paradigm shift Davenport seeks. It'll be more evidence, they say, but it won't be proof.

"The skeptic still says: Oh, that was a flock of birds, or an inversion layer, or it was swamp gas in Michigan," says Jan Harzan of the Mutual UFO Network.

Given that likelihood, says Bob Frost -- friend of Davenport and retired senior chief engineer at Boeing -- the upside might not offset the cost. By all accounts the systems are inexpensive, but the labor involved would be significant. "Is it worth the effort?" Frost asks, "Will it accomplish anything? I have my doubts."

Whatever criticisms can be leveled against Peter Davenport, an overabundance of caution is not one of them. Where Harzan and Frost are engaged in a calculation of costs and benefits, weighing the reward against the risk, Davenport remains fixed solely on the possibilities inherent in the question: Are we alone in the universe or are we not?

Frost reiterates his feeling that Davenport's is a battle against considerable inertia. People just don't want to know. They don't even want to talk about it. He admits, though, that those kinds of odds are only ever overcome by people with the kind of optimism that Davenport has displayed. "It would have to be that kind of mindset to push this thing through."

Davenport's optimism and determination looks to be having an incremental effect. Harzan says he's taken the passive radar idea to the board at MUFON and the board has asked to see a plan and a budget at the national symposium later this month. The question of who will build the system still exists, of course, but time seems to be a bigger limiting factor than money in this case. Harzan carries a bit of optimism there, too: The UFO community is a unique place, he says. "There are a lot of retired engineers out there."

Peter Davenport's phone is ringing again. A retired shrimp boat captain in his 80s calls from the Gulf Coast to tell of a light he and his partner saw out over the water one morning in the 1940s. Peter Davenport is only the second person he's ever told of this encounter. The first was the man's daughter, just the day before. "It was her idea to call you," he says.

The man rambles and appears to confuse certain elements of his story. He stutters and becomes flustered. He seems to jump forward and back in time. There's a tinge of annoyance in Davenport's voice as he tries to get the man to give him the facts.

The account is entirely un-useful as science, but that doesn't seem to be the man's intent in calling. There's fear in the man's voice. Less fear of the actual event, it seems, than fear that he'd gotten this near the end of his life without ever telling anyone what he'd seen.

Peter Davenport and the shrimp boat captain seem, in the end, to be driven and haunted by similar forces, propelled forward by a longing to share unexplained encounters but dogged by mounting dread that no one is really listening.

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