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Excited Harford County residents gather to view Monday's solar eclipse

Hannah Nigrin stepped up to the telescope manned by Harford County Astronomical Society president Rick Fensch, excited to see her first-ever solar eclipse.

The 18-year-old Harford Community College student later described a mix of emotions upon seeing the near-total eclipse. She was one of about 1,000 people who gathered in the parking lot of the HCC Observatory to see the eclipse as it made its way across the United States Monday afternoon.

"It's very intimidating to look at, and it's awesome — it's very beautiful," Nigrin, a resident of Bel Air, said.

Nigrin is going into her second year at HCC; she studies cybersecurity.

"I'm so interested in how our solar system works," she said.

The Astronomical Society, which holds open houses at the Observatory on the first Saturday of the month, hosted Monday's eclipse viewing.

Spectators, many of them parents and their children, gathered at telescopes manned by society members, or they looked through special eclipse glasses or pinhole viewers made from aluminum foil and cereal boxes.

Society member Susan Williamson had rigged up a viewer involving a piece of cardboard covering one lens of a pair of binoculars. The eclipse was projected through the other lens onto a piece of white posterboard.

Spectators could see the shadow on the posterboard as the moon made its way across the sun until about 80 percent of the sun was blocked.

"I saw this on the Internet, and I said, 'Yeah, I've got to do that,'" Williamson said of her device.

People in Oregon, the Midwest and Southeast could see a total eclipse, where the moon covers all of the sun, as they were directly in its path. It is the first total solar eclipse visible across the U.S. since February of 1979, according to NASA's website.

Williamson said a number of Harford Astronomical Society members traveled South to locations such as Tennessee to see the full eclipse Monday.

"They've been planning this for over a year," she said.

Elaine Santos, another HCC student, watched the eclipse's shadow creep across the posterboard.

"It's primitive and innovative just to watch it go across a white board," the 19-year-old Joppa resident said.

Santos, who is in her second year and studying digital arts, said she had not seen a lunar or a solar eclipse before.

"This is literally my chance, make it or break it," she said.

The next total solar eclipse will be visible in the U.S. between Maine and Texas in April of 2024, according to NASA.

Bel Air residents Alma Illian, 76, and her partner, Clyde Miller, 79, watched television coverage of the eclipse in the air-conditioned comfort of the observatory.

Illian remembers seeing the 1979 eclipse from her home outside Washington, D.C.

"It just got dark, like night, and then it started to get light again," she said.

She has four children, who were young at the time but enjoyed the experience.

"They really liked it," Illian said. "In fact, my older son went to South Carolina to view it this time."

She said she and Miller plan to be around to watch the next eclipse in 2024.

John Franchetti, of Bel Air, noted every place he went to to find eclipse viewing glasses was sold out. The astronomical society gave out 200 pairs of glasses at Monday's event.

"They provided glasses here, so I thought I'd come out and take a look at it," Franchetti said. "It's not something that you often see."

The weather was sunny Monday with scattered clouds, so the view was occasionally blocked when a cloud went across the sun. It did not get dark outside, though.

"Since we weren't in the path of totality we didn't get to see the sun's chromosphere, and we didn't get to see any stars during the day," Rick Fensch, president of the astronomical society, said.

The upper layers of the sun such as the chromosphere and the corona, which are not usually visible to the naked eye, can be seen during total eclipses as a ring of light around the moon, according to NASA.

"It's so exciting that the Harford astronomy group is here, sharing their equipment with us, so we get that up-close and personal look," Pamela Stell, HCC's human resources director, said.

She and her colleagues at the college stopped by to see the event.

The atmosphere outside the Observatory resembled that of a concert in the park, as families relaxed on blankets and children played nearby.

"If I had known it would be this crowded I would have brought a concession or a cooler of drinks to sell," Tom Trafton, of Abingdon, joke. "This is quite an event."

Trafton, 67, is retired from Harford County Public Schools. He taught environmental science and astronomy at Fallston High School and Havre de Grace High School.

He attended the eclipse event with his daughter, Bridget Strama, 44, of Parkville, two of her children as well as seven other children and three other mothers from Strama's home school group, Team Home School.

The group serves students in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Students in pre-Kindergarten through second grade were at Monday's event, according to parent Lynda Overbey, of Baltimore.

Trafton said the children were called back from their play every few minutes to see the gradual changes as the moon covered more of the sun.

The children expressed wonder and joy as they looked through glasses or viewers.

"It's instant gratification, but a little bit at a time," Trafton said.

Strama grew up in Harford County, and she graduated from HCC in 1993.

"It was amazing," she said of the eclipse. "We keep telling [the children] they're going to be excited about it when they grow up."

Matt Buckleman, 40, of Bel Air, looked through Fensch's telescope, along with his 11-year-old daughter, Grace, and 8-year-old son, Jonah.

"It looks really cool," said Grace, who had not seen an eclipse before.

"It looked like a humongous shadow on the sun," her brother added.

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