Petaluma house damaged by mysterious camera lens dropped from sky
Published: Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 12:29 p.m.
The crashing sound outside her Petaluma home office made Debbie Payne think a car must have smashed into the side of her home.
The clatter, just after 4 p.m. on Sept. 2, was loud enough to bring her next-door neighbor out, too, to investigate.
Seeing no car crash, they looked around and eventually found a large Canon camera lens on the ground next to Payne’s house — and a shard of it in the neighbor’s yard on the other side of an 8-foot fence.
“We didn’t see any place where someone could be throwing things from,” she said. “Then my neighbor said, ‘Look up. You have a hole in your roof!’”
Petaluma police are of the same mind as Payne — that the lens must have fallen from a passing aircraft.
“There’s nothing to explain it any other way,” said Lt. Tim Lyons. “You can’t throw something that high in the air and have it do that much damage coming down. I’m imagining this high-flying jet and the lens comes out of it somehow.”
A circular void about the size of a large cantaloupe is evident through the eaves of her two-story, 1915 home on Walnut Street in West Petaluma. The building is one of the only duplexes designed by Brainerd Jones, one of the North Bay’s premier architects of the early 20th century.
The 24-105mm telephoto lens crashed through the 1965 roof tiles and other roofing layers and through the wood underneath, leaving splintered shards on the ground below.
It struck two window screens on the way down, tearing them and damaging their wooden frames. It hit the glass pane of the first window, in the bedroom of Payne’s 26-year-old son Michael.
“That is about a foot from his pillow,” Payne said.
It is also about 100 feet from the playground of St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School across the street, where dozens of children played dodgeball and other games Thursday.
In addition to Petaluma Police and her insurance company, Payne has contacted the Federal Aviation Administration, local airports and even local aerial photographers to ask if someone has reported losing a lens. Similar lenses cost $1,100 or more.
“No one is ‘fessing up to losing a lens,” Payne said. “It would have had to have been from an open plane or a helicopter. They had to have known.”
The lens is one of the higher-end models Canon sells, said Dave Minner, manager at the Petaluma Shutterbug camera store.
It would make sense for a photographer or “serious amateur” to use a lens like that while shooting from an aircraft, he said.
What is troubling, Payne said, is that the falling lens could have hurt — or even killed — someone, and whoever lost it may be trying to avoid responsibility. The lens weighed almost two pounds.
An FAA spokesman in Los Angeles said intentionally dropping a possibly dangerous item from an aircraft is prohibited by aviation regulations, but an accident would be looked at differently.
While the FAA doesn’t doubt Payne’s account, there is no hard evidence proving it came from a plane.
“She didn’t see an aircraft flying over her home at the time the event occurred and we do not know if the alleged incident was related to an aircraft overflight,” said Ian Gregor of the FAA’s regional office. “Without any evidence of an aircraft overflight, this is very difficult to investigate.”
He said radar doesn’t cover low-altitude flights in the area. Small private planes likely wouldn’t have filed flight plans with the local authorities, so it wouldn’t be possible to track down an operator that way, either, he said.
Reports of falling objects from aircraft are rare, but not unheard of.
“We occasionally get reports of blue or clear ice falling from commercial aircraft,” Gregor said. “As far as I can recall, I have never heard of someone reporting a camera lens fell through their roof.”
Payne, a graphic designer, and her husband, Mark, are the third owners of the home, having rented there since 1989 and buying it in 2000. The roofer’s estimate to repair the damage was $4,300, Payne said.
Meanwhile, Petaluma police are attempting to find the lens’ owner.
“We’re still trying to track down the serial number and trying to determine whether anything was flying over at the time,” Lyons said.
Experts at Shutterbug ran the identifying number through their system and said it hadn’t been registered by any local user.
Minner said Canon would be able to tell where the lens was shipped, but would only have ownership information if the buyer registered it for the warranty, which he says is uncommon.
There wasn’t any tell-tale owner’s name or label.
“I wish it said NASA or Hubble on it,” Lyons said.
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