By Roy Bragg
San Antonio Express-News staff writer
ARTESIA WELLS — Strange things are afoot in the South Texas oil patch and in the sky above. In a region that’s seen its tax rolls and traffic problems swell from the scores of new residents, could extraterrestrials be the next wave?
Roughnecks working at a fracturing well in the Eagle Ford Shale drilling region say they saw unidentified lights in the night sky on consecutive days in October and captured blurry video of at least one of them.
Three months earlier, a security camera captured a blurry, black-and-white image of what appears to be a flying saucer hovering ominously at another well site.
So far, no little green men have applied for a truck-driving job, but in a region desperate for more workers, they may not get turned down if they did.
Space alien visitation, or at least claims of it, adds a new dimension to the social upheaval that’s engulfed La Salle County.
Here and throughout South Texas, drilling for energy in the lucrative Eagle Ford Shale has created an economic tsunami in traditionally cash-dry towns.
In years past, pitch-black nights swaddled the unforgiving mesquite forests that cover the region. Now, large tracts are lit up by floodlights that allow around-the-clock work at drilling rigs.
In other places, the fire of flare pits burning off unwanted byproducts casts an orange glow in the sky.
Armies of oil field workers have descended on the area, but if you believe the eyewitnesses, this is a different type of invasion.
The cellphone video, taken by worker Xavier Garza, shows a reddish-orange orb in the northern sky. Roughnecks can be heard off-camera cursing — as they are wont to do — in amazement.
Witnesses say the camera didn’t pick up a dozen more lights that appeared and reappeared several times, typically hovering in formation. It happened two nights in a row.
And last week, a photo surfaced on the website of the Mutual UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) Network, a volunteer group that investigates UFO claims, purportedly taken at a well site in the same stretch of the Eagle Ford.
Allegedly taken from a security camera, it appears to show a large saucer-like object, with an array of four lights, hovering over the caliche pad of a La Salle County well site. Other odd orbs can be seen in the background.
That photo, with a July 5 time stamp, already has passed two authenticity tests, says Charles Stansburge, a veteran MUFON investigator.
“If it’s a prank,” Stansburge said, “someone spent a lot of money to stage it. It’s not a doctored photo. It’s a 60-foot-diameter saucer that’s hovering.”
Putting on a show
But if there are UFOs, no one’s bothered to call authorities.
Sheriff’s Department officials say they haven’t received any reports about UFOs. And the La Salle County airport manager, who goes by the name E.T. Page, says he’s never heard of UFO sightings in the area. And with a name like that, you’d think he’d be the first to know.
In most cases, UFO reports are dismissed as military, scientific or civilian aircraft gone astray. Other times, they’re blamed on strange but unexplained atmospheric conditions.
The witnesses here aren’t buying any of that.
“We all know what the lights from a plane or a helicopter look like,” said Rene Cantu, the oilfield worker who first sighted the orange lights. “This wasn’t a plane or a helicopter.”
“We sit on our back porch and watch planes go by every night,” said Jerry Farrell, a nearby rancher who saw the same lights as Cantu and his co-workers. “This was 12, 13, 14 lights, that were all spread out, flying all over the sky. And when they moved, it was at unbelievable speed, from horizon to horizon and back.”
Cantu was on a work break when he saw the lights. He yelled out to co-workers, who joined him watching the lights, which put on a 3-minute show, bouncing around the heavens like a celestial pinball machine.
The lights vanished for 25 minutes, then returned for another 3-minute show.
The stunned roughnecks wondered if they had been hallucinating. Then delivery trucks, which had been waiting down the road for their turn to approach the site, pulled up.
“The truck drivers were all, ‘Did you guys see those lights up there?’” Cantu said. “So it wasn’t just us.”
Did they gas up?
The next night, Garza had his phone camera ready to go. But because of the blinding glare from the floodlights, he only caught a few seconds of a single orange sphere. This time, however, there were nearly 20 witnesses.
The web is littered with unsubstantiated first-person accounts of UFOs being seen in nearby Encinal and Cotulla. And Texas is no stranger to unexplained sightings. Another case in point: the mysterious Marfa lights of West Texas.
Farrell and his wife, who live close enough to Interstate 35 to see traffic moving, didn’t video what they saw as the UFOs used the South Texas sky as their canvas.
“We sat back there watching them for 30 or 40 minutes,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I’ve never heard (of) or seen things that move that fast.”
Stansburge, of MUFON, isn’t sure what his investigation will uncover. He’s only charged with investigating the black-and-white image of the saucer.
That photo showed up on MUFON’s servers with a name and phone number attached. He wouldn’t divulge the name of the witness, other than to say the person filing the report appeared to be from Laredo.
The witness wrote to MUFON that the company that owns the site began noticing crude oil was being siphoned from onsite tanks nightly. A security camera system was installed to catch the thieves in the act and gather information that could be forwarded to the Sheriff’s Department.
The company didn’t catch thieves, but it may have caught a UFO instead, at least on film — maybe.
Most UFO landings, Stansburge said, happen for a reason. Ninety percent are near bodies of water, which leads UFO observers to believe aliens need water. The sudden appearance over one of the hottest oil plays in the nation, he suspects, may mean the aliens stopped in to gas up.
His investigation is in its earliest phases.
He doesn’t expect to find much. It’s likely that any evidence of a July landing will be long gone, Stansburge said, tainted by truck tires, washed away by rains or blown into the brush by hot summer winds.
“All we can do,” he says, “is document what we find.”