Harford escapes damage from runaway Army blimp, as emergency officials stood ready for worst

Harford escapes damage from runaway Army blimp, as emergency officials stood ready for worst
An unmanned Army surveillance blimp floats through the air while dragging a tether line south of Millville, Pa., on Wednesday. The bulbous, 240-foot long helium-filled blimp came down near Muncy, a small town about 80 miles north of Harrisburg. The North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado said the blimp detached from its station at the military's Aberdeen Proving Ground. in Maryland. (Jimmy May / Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP)

Harford County emergency officials were able to breathe a sigh of relief after Wednesday's SNAFU when a military surveillance blimp broke loose from its mooring at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground and floated cross country for more than 100 miles with its heavy tether cable in tow.

The JLENs blimp eventually deflated and fell to the ground in north central Pennsylvania, but not before knocking down power lines and causing other damage in the Keystone State.


"We were lucky that it didn't do a cross cut across [Harford] county or I-95," County Executive Glassman said Thursday. "At that level, it was still ascending."

Glassman said he and county emergency officials were notified around noon Wednesday, shortly after the blimp broke loose at 11:54 a.m.

He said a "first responder" at APG notified the county and provided general information that the blimp was loose and its tether was trailing behind it.

He said the county Emergency Operations Center went to a Level 3 activation, in which local first responders were alerted to be on the lookout for the blimp.

Andy Doyle, spokesperson for the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company, said his company got its first notification from the Harford County Department of Emergency Services, which was followed by a press release from APG.

"A hard copy of the press release came out after that, and we shared it with all media outlets," Doyle said.

The Army post's public affairs office sent the press release via email at 1:35 p.m. Wednesday. It stated that the tether for a JLENS blimp had broken shortly before noon, and the blimp was in the air trailing 6,700 feet of electronic tether.

"Emergency personnel are tracking the aerostat which is still aloft and moving toward Pennsylvania," the Army said.

Anyone who saw the blimp was advised to call 911 "immediately" and avoid contact with the blimp and its tether "as contact with them may present significant danger."

Doyle said the APG release was posted on the Joppa-Magnolia Facebook page and Twitter feeds.

"There was no specific response or instructions or notification to us," he said. "We were just complying with the APG press release."

Sgt. Shannon Persuhn, spokesperson for the Aberdeen Police Department, said the Army post contacted her agency Wednesday about the blimp.

"They did tell us that it was loose and to be on the lookout for it," she said.

Edward Hopkins, Harford County's director of emergency services, said county emergency officials conferred with APG representatives for about 15 to 20 minutes after the initial notification at noon to verify the blimp's location and direction of travel.

He said fire companies in the immediate area of APG, such as Aberdeen and Edgewood, were notified, as well as Glassman and his staff.

Hopkins said the county's Emergency Operations Center went to the Level 3 alert around 12:20 p.m., after officials verified the blimp was still in the air, and a general alert was broadcast countywide over the emergency radio.

The EOC was at Level 3 for about 50 minutes as emergency staff monitored the blimp, the weather, stayed in contact with APG and surrounding counties and developed contingency plans based on what the blimp could do.

"We helped set up a bridge between Pennsylvania emergency management and the Proving Ground," Hopkins said. "Once we got those two entities together, there wasn't any threat to Harford County residents."

He said the Harford EOC returned to normal operations once any local threat passed.

Hopkins noted Harford emergency officials and fire company leaders met with Army representatives before the first blimp was launched in late 2014 to learn about the device and any potential problems.

"Everyone had a working knowledge of what could potentially happen if the device came down," Hopkins said.

Investigators are looking into how a JLENS blimp got loose Wednesday in Edgewood.

Like Hopkins, Glassman said county emergency officials remained in contact with APG representatives throughout Wednesday afternoon as the situation developed.

'We were fortunate in the fact that, when it became untethered, it was at the optimal level of helium," Glassman said of the blimp, which meant it was too high to cause any damage in Harford County when it broke loose.

The dangling cable did cause damage in Pennsylvania, such as knocking out power lines serving more that 25,000 homes and businesses, as the blimp lost helium and it got closer to the ground.

Glassman said APG's senior commander, Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford, called him from Germany Wednesday.

The general told him the Defense Department will investigate how the blimp broke loose. Harford emergency officials and APG officials will meet to review their emergency response plans, Glassman said.

"We'll be meeting with Gen. Crawford and his team to make sure that we follow up on our emergency operations plan and review that, just to make sure we're doing everything correctly on our side," he said.