People gathered at schools, a rural airport and downtown St. Louis on Monday seeking a good view of the total eclipse. The celestial event reached totality (when the moon completely covered the sun) at about 1:15 p.m. St. Louis time, darkening the skies except for what looked like a very bright headlight overhead.
About 500 people swarmed the small Perryville Municipal Airport about an hour south of St. Louis, and many people flew their own planes to get there. The crowd ranged from scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago to families who weren’t even that into space.
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Count Justin Chockley and his wife, Kerry, 37, among the latter group. They were part of an eight-plane travel cohort from Springdale, Arkansas.
“The kids are more into space than we are,” Justin Chockley said of his 6- and 4-year olds. “It’s really an excuse to do something with our family. We’re probably going to be on eye protection-duty more than watching the eclipse. We’ll probably be sitting on their hands the whole time making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Adler Planetarium volunteer coordinator Ken Walczak described the project his employer was working on: launching a couple of balloons to capture a video feed of the eclipse. One will go about 90,000 feet above the clouds, and the other will take a virtual reality 360-degree video.
“Once we get those balloons in the air I’ll be really excited,” he said.
Courtney Leverenz, 19, is studying aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois. She said her classmates are working on their own balloon-launched contraption, which they call the “sidecar” to take a 360-degree video.
Amateur astronomers Rob and Laura Bach from Burlington, Wisconsin, camped at the airport after flying in.
“Something about watching the eclipse gives you a sense of how small everything is in your local neighborhood,” Rob Bach said. “You get an idea of how fast the world is turning and how fast the moon is turning, which is a big deal.”
After the eclipse, Springfield resident Matt Niblanc, 50, said he most enjoyed when the sun re-emerged.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” said the 50-year-old, who was accompanied by friends from New Jersey.
And Margaret Hill, a physics professor at Southeast Missouri State University, had high praise for the sunny weather.
“We couldn’t have asked for things to go more perfectly today,” she said.
In a farming community near De Soto, about 40 people watched the eclipse at Sunrise R-9 school. Classes don’t start until Wednesday, but the PTO set up an event, offering activities for kids and free eclipse glasses — with elastic straps so they don’t fall off the kids’ faces easily.
Larry Van Meter, a 59-year-old astronomy hobbyist who has two grandkids at the school, illustrated the scale and distance of the sun and the moon to the earth — by using paper plates, peppercorns and poppy seeds. He saw a partial eclipse in 1979 and still can’t get over it.
“It’s awesome. It was really awesome. It’s almost an eerie feeling, it’s so unreal,” Van Meter said.
The 7- to 10-year-old kids got restless ahead of the eclipse event, and played kickball and ran around for the hour leading up to it. But as the sun started disappearing, a collective “Wow!” came from the kids. Families huddled together in the field across from the school to stare up at the sky — glasses on, of course — and took pictures of each other.
“It looks like a big black kickball,” 10-year-old Karson Campbell said. His 8-year-old sister Ava called it a ring.
Alex Bownine, 8, had been running around with everyone. His take?
“This was my first time seeing the solar eclipse and your mind was like ‘Oh, there’s a black hole!’” he said, stopping to catch his breath. “When (the sun) wasn’t here the moon looked so awesome.”
Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis, where about 160 people gathered to watch the eclipse, wasn't in the path of totality. That didn't bother Denise and Mark Lanes from Naperville, Illinois.
“He likes it here because it’s not so busy but it’s just as nice a view,” Denise Lanes, 64, said of her 55-year-old husband.
Their weeklong road trip caused some problems when it came to eclipse glasses, because the ones they ordered didn’t come on time. But St. Louis delivered: She scored some at the Old Courthouse this morning.
Wildwood Community College student Farah Alhamed, 18, found out about the eclipse two days ago and picked up glasses for her family earlier in the day.
She was with her older sister, Alanoud, 4-year-old sister, Salma, and mother, Sahar Alfyez.
“You kind of get a glimpse of day and night in literally two minutes. It was amazing” Alanoud Alhamed said.
Stephen Andrich, who works for delivery service Food Pedaler, stopped by the park as the event was nearing its peak.
“I didn't have any orders up at the time so I got to stop by and watch the eclipse, which was pretty cool,” Andrich said.
Back in the totality zone, the O’Connells watched the eclipse in the front yard of their Webster Groves home.
"I've been watching TV and seeing people driving hours to catch a glimpse of this,” Bob O’Connell said. "It's absolutely a unique thing. I hear the next one is in 400 years."
The couple taped a pair of viewing glasses onto a paper plate with a small hole cut into it, so their 3-year-old daughter could hold it better and view the sun safely.