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April 17, 2013

Weather balloon causes scare near Empire

EMPIRE — A suspicious package reported near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at about the time two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon turned out to be a part of a weather balloon.

Ranger Nate Mazurek was the first to respond Monday to a 4:13 p.m. call of a suspicious item near a boundary marker at Voice Road and LaCore Street in Leelanau County’s Empire Township.

He said he immediately recognized the Styrofoam box likely was part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather balloon, but proceeded with caution following the events in Boston.

“There were some wires visible which I’m sure could be disconcerting,” he said. “I imagine people could think it was all sorts of things. There was nothing it to indicate it could be a weather balloon.”

National Lakeshore rangers, Leelanau County Sheriff’s officers and local fire departments all responded to the call. Mazurek said the scene was cleared after he consulted with Sheriff Mike Borkovich and verified it probably was a weather balloon transponder.

The instrument is still in the National Lakeshore offices, but Keith Berger, observing programs leader at the National Weather Service office in Gaylord, said he is confident based on the description that it is a radiosonde that was attached to a weather balloon.

Radiosondes collect weather information as they are carried up by balloons that reach up to 100,000 feet in the air before they return to earth by parachute.

Berger said based on wind patterns the device likely was launched from a Green Bay, Wisc. weather station. He said it probably fell into the water because it’s biodegradable cardboard shell and mailing instructions were missing.

Mazurek believes someone found it on the shore and brought it to the National Lakeshore boundary marker where officials could find it. He said the fact that the device turned out to be harmless shouldn’t stop onlookers from reporting suspicious items.

“While I was pretty sure I knew what it was, I was very prepared to call in resources who have expertise in suspicious packages,” he said.

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