Last Wednesday morning, police received a call from a citizen who lives in the Camp Hero housing development just one mile from the giant 11-story abandoned military radar tower saying that when he woke up he observed that the dish atop the tower had moved about 90 degrees counterclockwise from where it had been the night before. When he went to bed, it was pointing to the northwest as it always has. When he woke up, it was pointed to the northeast. It has not moved at all since 1966, this man said, since it had served its final day for the Air Force and was decommissioned. He thought it startling that the dish was now turned in another direction.
The call was transferred to the Montauk Police Annex in the center of downtown Montauk where an officer was dispatched to the scene. The dish was indeed pointing to the northwest. But, even though this officer was a longtime Montauk resident, he could not remember if that was different from the direction it always pointed in. He thought that perhaps the caller was playing a trick on him and that it had always pointed to the northwest. He went to see the caller, Howard Edelstein, who was adamant that he had seen it move. And so, the officer asked around. Nine people said that even though the dish looms over the landscape at 110 feet, they never noticed before which way it pointed. But one old timer, Max McLaughlin, said he remembered that it pointed northeast and when he was asked to look at it, he did and became agitated and said that it very definitely had moved.
This radar tower, part of the Cold War, was designed and erected shortly after the Second World War to act as a deterrent and possible early warning system in the event of incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Nearly 150 airmen lived at the base, monitoring air traffic with the dish, from 1956 to 1966.
Later in the day, police made a further call to the New York State Park Commission office in Sayville, who said it had checked the plans and since the radar tower and the support housing had been made into a state park exhibit in 2002, it had been pointed to the northeast.
The Montauk Fire Department was called to the scene since it was now believed that it had indeed moved, and that it might have come loose from its moorings up there atop its concrete tower. The concrete tower rises 90 feet with the steel dish 20 feet high and 40 feet wide atop it. Ladders were put up to the side of the tower. But they did not reach far enough up, and so it was decided to abandon the fire department effort because the dish might be tipsy and dangerous and possibly come down on top of everybody at any time and what could they accomplish up there anyway?
As a result of this, the fire department and police put a police cordon around the base of the tower until the Parks Department could dispatch experts to deal with the situation, which was arranged for Friday.
The dish did not move at all on Wednesday night or Thursday, but on Friday morning it was found that the dish was facing southeast, another counter clockwise move of 90 degrees. Again, it had apparently moved during the night.
A team of 15 experts from the New York City Bridge and Flange Repair Company arrived in three trucks on Friday about noon. It was a warm day and there was a big crowd of people behind the police barrier out there to watch. Men in helmets with climbing equipment and pickaxes spent an hour atop the tower and said the dish showed no sign of being moved whatsoever and that the heavy bolts, though rusted a bit, were still holding it in position fast and there was no danger of it falling or coming loose whatsoever.
“It’s as solid as a rock,” the foremen from NYCBFRC said.
At the suggestion of a Montauk war veteran at the scene, retired Air Force Colonel George Pincus, who said he had known air force officers who worked at the Air Force Base in the 1960s, it was decided to put a call out to experts in the military who, with blueprints of the interior of the tower, could go inside to see what was causing the movement. To that end, the plywood covers of the doorframes to the tower were removed. A police cordon remained at the tower all Friday night and on Saturday morning, through the good offices of the Coast Guard Air Rescue Squadron at the Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, Army Engineers were contacted and, with the original plans and about a dozen experts, came out in helicopters on Saturday afternoon to go inside the interior of the concrete base to determine what had come loose in there.
The experts spent a day inside and came out with the report that everything inside was frozen solid and it was impossible for anything to move to make the dish turn.
“We are back to ground zero,” said Chief Lionel Button of the Hampton Town Police, who was leading the investigation.
Saturday night, a team of 10 police officers and detectives remained on an all night vigil at the radar tower. The dish did not move Saturday night.
On Sunday night, the police took a different approach. Feeling that perhaps local teenagers were involved in this as a prank, the cordon was removed and plainclothesmen were dispatched to loiter at the scene all night, some disguised as campers on the beach, others as fishermen or hikers. Three went to some of the homes in the Camp Hero development where some homeowners volunteered to allow them to conduct a vigil from the attic of their homes all night. It was hoped they would catch the perpetrators in the act. But once again, the tower did not move that night.
On Monday, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson ordered the stakeout to be discontinued “for budgetary reasons,” is what he said. East Hampton Town finances are very tight. They need to save every penny. “Nothing is coming of this,” he told a press conference Saturday afternoon.
On Tuesday morning, it was found that the radar dish had moved from southeast to southwest to point to where it was when all this activity began six days earlier.
As we go to press, everyone is waiting with bated breath today, Tuesday, to see what is going to happen tonight.
“Frankly, I’m scared,” said Paul Peterson, who lives on South Edgemere Road in Montauk.
This article originally ran in April of 2009. It wasn’t Halloween then. We thought it ought to have another go around some year in October. Booo.