The Day With Two Dawns

The 1999 Total Eclipse


Hywel Williams

You are here! The day started when the alarm clock went off at 2am BST on the morning of August 11th 1999, after only two hours of hours of sleep. Stephen (a friend and colleague at the BBC) and I had decided only the previous weekend that, based on the long range weather forecasts available at the time that Northern France would probably be the best place that we could reasonably reach within a day to view the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century. Within a few minutes getting up, the car was packed with last minute provisions and Stephen arrived with a wonderful mobile fridge packed full of diet coke and we were off!

The journey from Maidstone to Dover and the 3:45am English Channel crossing were uneventful but as we watched the pale dawn from the deck of the cross channel ferry, we regarded the clouds towards the south with some worry, noting that the only clear patch of sky was north east of us, in the direction we weren't going!

We arrived at Calais at approximately 6am CET and were quickly on the Autoroute, heading for Reims. Over the past week we had reviewed the weather forecast from the Met Office daily and as time progressed our initial prognosis was confirmed that our best chance of viewing the total eclipse was somewhere between Reims and Metz, but the outlook was still rather bleak, the chances being given by the forecasters as 30% to 50% of viewing the spectacle.

More attention was paid to the clouds and the sky on that journey than we had ever done before! One minute the horizon was dark and threatening, the next we could see sunbeams in the distance. Unfortunately the overwhelming feeling we always had was "if only we could be over there" as the weather always seemed better towards the eastern horizon.

We crossed into the path of totality at around 8am, where the moon's umbra would race across the land at a dizzying 1800 miles per hour and the observation of a total eclipse was possible. Soon we were passing picnic areas and camp sites along the road where many had obviously decided to stop to view the eclipse, but we continued with our plan of reaching Reims, just south of the centre line of totality. Our initial plan was to get that far then make any further decisions based on our perceptions of the weather. We arrived at a service station just outside Reims at about 9am, with about 3 hours to go.

After a brief break at Reims without a single break in the cloud, it was decided that we move on eastwards towards Metz - we hoped there would be a better chance of seeing the event in that direction, but our greatest fear was that things would clear here first and that we would miss something that many of the folk who had made this place their stopping point would experience.

Onward we went and at first our fears seemed to be confirmed. One moment a break in the cloud, the next dark and foreboding. A growing niggling worry was that there was far more traffic coming in the opposite direction with their lights on than was traveling in ours. Then the sky opened and there was torrential downpour. This seemed to confirm our fears that we had made a mistake and we considered turning around and heading back for Reims. After about 25 minutes however, the rain stopped as quickly as it had started leaving us with the same mottled grey sky we had been viewing all morning.

By this time there was only 1 hours to go to the total eclipse and I had resigned myself to the fact that we would see the sky go dark, a strange enough sight in itself, but that we would witness precious little else so we headed for a service station called Metz - St. Priviet that was about 1km from the centre line of totality and about 5km north west of Metz and pulled in there.

The Garage Fore court What we saw was unexpected. The car park as well as the lorry park were already full of vehicles and people. Parking was now a free-for-all on grass verges as well as the approach slip to the petrol station, where we decamped. The gendarme present was already resigned to the fact that people were doing this and was helpfully ensuring that there was a passageway for any vehicles that were continuing to arrive in a steady stream.

My first glimpse of the sun all morning came within a minute of arriving when many of the people around started pointing at the sky - amazingly, for the brief 20 second break in the cloud we witnessed first contact, the period when the tiniest sliver of the moon touches the sun. This was quickly covered by the dark menacing clouds and all that was left to do was to talk to some of the others who had arrived.

It seems that people all over Europe had decided that this service station was the best spot for viewing the eclipse. There were roughly a thousand people from the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and of course France all chatting in the anticipation of what was to follow. We were soon chatting and comparing our notes and maps of the umbral track while others were busy setting up equipment. Like myself, nobody I spoke to had ever seen a total eclipse before. Some had cameras and telescopes, others merely the special sun filters which enabled the viewing of the sun in it's full intensity, something at this point we all doubted would happen. All were here with one aim - to see something they probably had one chance in a lifetime of witnessing.

The Sun & The Moon Time passed and at around 12:00pm there was another small break in the clouds which enabled us to see that there was now something like 80% of the sun being obscured by the moon. This sight in itself was amazing and provoked much excitement among myself and fellow viewers but this was soon obscured again. I marveled that even with this much sun covered there was little or no difference in the illumination of our surroundings.

The clouds re-joined and I sat down and listened to the live commentary on a weak and scratchy long wave reception from BBC Radio 4 of the event happening in Cornwall, one of the first places the eclipse was to touch land. We heard that it quickly become very dark but it seemed that most people hadn't been able to see the corona apart from on a live video link-up with a Hercules aircraft flying overhead. I had worked out that we would experience the eclipse approximately 18 minutes after Cornwall, so we waited for, what felt like the longest quarter of an hour in my life.

At about 20 minutes past the hour, I suddenly realised that things were starting to get noticeably darker. I checked my thermometer which had also dropped from 20 to 18 in the last 20 minutes. It was about to happen! Suddenly, all the arc lamps which lit the fore court came on - obviously the electronics were of the opinion that night was descending, so several of us quickly raced across the road to a small patch of grass away from the lights. It was getting progressively darker but no sign of the expected umbral shadow to the west.

Telescope & Camera Although it had started raining, the clouds suddenly parted and we had our first view of the tiniest crescent of light from the sun, still obscured by clouds but bright enough to shine through! We desperately hoped that this would last until the moment of totality or perhaps this last minute hope would be cruelly dashed at the last minute.

Then it all started to happen at once. The surrounding countryside started to get darker and darker as if a celestial dimmer switch was being turned down. Then, as I watched and the cloud deck on the horizon suddenly went very dark, and the darkness could be seen creeping towards us. Someone previously had asked me why I was bothering going so far just to see a couple of minutes of darkness - surely I had seen a dark cloud passing over the sun ? I can honestly say this was nothing like a cloud obscuring the sun - the whole countryside was fading away and this black horizon rushing towards us at an unearthly pace. I then looked up and saw something I will not forget for the rest of my life.

For years, I've looked forward to and planned for this date and often wondered how I'd actually feel when witnessing one of nature's most spectacular celestial events. I guessed I'd be pretty excited but In reality, no words can possibly come close to describing the sheer emotion of the next 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

Sickle of Light Totality! The sight of the tiny sickle of light from the sun was spectacular enough as it shone through a thin layer of cloud, but then the sliver almost immediately became a point of light and suddenly I could see the outline of the corona flowering from behind the moon - the diamond ring!!! I was awe-struck!! This point of light winked out within seconds and became a total eclipse and I was looking at something an hour ago I had dared believed I would see - the total eclipse of the sun!

Although shining through cloud, the ghostly corona was clearly visible around the black "eye" of the moon, shining an eerie yellow-white light and at several points around the disk, bright red promenances were clearly visible. I have seen this many times on television and have seen countless pictures of eclipses but nothing comes close to seeing this first hand! All around me people were cheering and whooping with joy - I joined them.

I stole a look around me. It was as dark as it gets just before the last moments of sunset slip away. I could still see my immediate surroundings but it was similar to walking outside by moonlight. The cloud cover was almost totally dark but there was still a slight glow from the thinner parts of cloud, giving a strange tortoise shell effect. I had expected to see brightness at the horizon due to the limited size of the shadow of totality but probably due to the cloud cover and the fact we weren't on high ground, all horizons seemed uniformly dark by this time.

Here comes the sun again! As I looked up again, the eclipse was eclipsed - by clouds. I estimate we had seen the event for about 1 minute 45 seconds of the 2 minutes 15 predicted for our region before it was obscured but by this time there were other things to see. The horizon which only a minute ago had almost instantly turned black was now showing light - the second dawn! This however was like no dawn I had ever seen as it was appearing from the west and it was brightening at a rate that could be clearly be observed by the naked eye! Almost as quickly as it had started it was over; a bright point of light could be perceived through the clouds which would have been the second diamond ring should the clouds have been thinner and the countryside was again instantly bathed in light. The cloudy sky quickly changed back from black to grey.

The air by now was distinctly chilly and it was also raining big heavy droplets of rain so I went back to the car and checked the thermometer which confirmed that the temperature had dropped to 15 in the last three minutes - a 2 drop which was less than expected but probably explained by the cloud cover.

Throughout totality I was amazed that there were still cars driving along the roads and arriving at the service station (obviously with their lights on)! I was tempted to wonder if this sort of thing occurs often around these parts and these people couldn't be bothered to stop to observe since they'd seen it all before...

One phenomenon caused by the eclipse that I haven't heard of before is that my mobile phone, which had worked all morning suddenly stopped working for about 15 minutes after the eclipse. It only took a moment to realise why - I can just picture thousands of people all along the umbral track trying to phone friends and relatives to tell them how amazing the experience was!

Over the next hour the cloud cover started to break and there were several opportunities to view the moon slowly slipping away from the sun. During this time the service station slowly returned to normal operation and by the time fourth contact arrived there were only a few die-hard eclipse watchers still craning their necks towards the sun looking through the absurd looking filters.

My main regret for the day was remembering to bring my camera but not having any film in it! This was not for taking pictures of the eclipse - the professionals would do a much better job of that than I ever could - it would have been nice to have some pictures to remember the day in general. This has since in part been compensated by the images we were able to take off Stephen's video camera footage.

Since we had traveled over 300 miles to see this eclipse, all that remained was to drive home. Which we did and that's a boring story compared to the first half of the day and not really worth telling!

These weren't needed much of the time!

The images on this page were all taken by Stephen Anderson on an 8mm video camera (with the exception of totality when the camera, with theatrical irony stopped working) and have been digitized using an AVID off-line editor (overkill...) and manipulated for online publication using Paint Shop Pro 5. A more comprehensive gallery of pictures is also available.

Have a look at the Eclipse picture gallery

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Hywel Williams

The background image used on this page was provided originally as a windows background image by BBC NEWS. They ran an excellent (in my opinion anyway!) eclipse web page containing many pictures taken all over the world on that day which should still be available with a bit of luck!