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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sky Grows Dim as Moon, Sun Put on a Show




RAMNICU VALCEA, Romania -- The moon sliced into the sun Wednesday, enveloping parts of the world in gloom as the last eclipse of the millennium moved eastward from the southwest tip of England to the Bay of Bengal.


Spectators in its 100-kilometer-wide path clogged highways in Germany, where the eclipse was responsible for at least one fatal traffic accident. Others crowded the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks, peering skyward behind special glasses, welder's masks and other protective gear.


Still others stayed inside, driven either by concern about their eyesight or less tangible fears, rooted in superstition or religious belief.


The longest view of the total eclipse - a full 2 minutes and 23 seconds - was in and around Ramnicu Valcea, a gritty city of 100,000 in southcentral Romania dominated by gray concrete tenements from the Communist era.


There, thousands crowded streets and rooftops as the moon bit into the sun, darkening clear skies and causing the temperature to plummet temporarily from its high of around 30 degrees Celsius.


"Wow!" one teenager yelled. "Cool!" said another. As the eclipse approached totality a loud cheer went up from the crowd.


Hundreds more made the trek to a nearby half-dried-up salt lake, munching on barbecued prawn and steak as they prepared for an unimpeded view.


"We are a bit scared," said Silvia Popa, a 44-year old accountant, reflecting age-old Balkan superstitions. "They say after an eclipse, there is either a storm or a cataclysm."


Others exulted in the spectacle. Scientists, who had gathered in Ramnicu Valcea from all over the world, stood on hotel rooftops cracking open champagne and downloading data as the sun began to reappear.


"It worked great," said Jay Pasachoff, director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College in Massachusetts.


A solar eclipse occurs when the moon crosses between Earth and sun. The next one will be in 2001 over southern Africa.


By analyzing the eclipse scientists hope to learn more about giant gas explosions on the sun's surface, which cause magnetic storms that can interfere with radio, television and telephone signals and satellite communications.


With the sun at the height of its 11-year cycle of activity, this is also a good chance to investigate why the corona sizzles at 2 million degrees Celsius, despite the bitter cold of space. The sun's surface temperature is only about 6,100 degrees Celsius, while the sun's core is estimated to be 15 million degrees.


In Cornwall, at the southwest tip of England and the eclipse's landfall, clouds made the two-minute spectacle invisible.


From Land's End, the moon's shadow dashed at 2,435 kilometers per hour across parts of France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, across a path 110 kilometers wide, before sinking at sunset in the Bay of Bengal off India.


Twilight fell on London. Trials were adjourned briefly at the Old Bailey criminal court to allow jurors and lawyers - but not defendants - to go out to watch.


A 24-year-old student who climbed a utility pole in Landau, near the French border in southern Germany, for a view accidentally received a 20,000-volt shock and serious burns.


In Vienna's red light district, some prostitutes waiting for clients at the edge of a main thoroughfare sported eclipse glasses as they gazed heavenward.


The Eiffel Tower was packed with thousands of people on its base and hundreds more on the monument itself. As Paris reached its darkest stage, street lights came on and the tower was lit as if for night. Elsewhere in the city of haute couture, some were spotted wearing upscale designer viewing glasses.


In Rome, Pope John Paul II cut short his weekly audience with pilgrims, saying: "I know that some of you are in a hurry to see the eclipse of the sun."


Fear of the supernatural alternated with health concerns as the eclipse moved eastward.


Streets were deserted in Sarajevo, as if the city were still under the Serbian siege of the Bosnian war. With special viewing glasses unavailable, most people were staying indoors there, as in Moldova, Macedonia and other countries in southeastern Europe.


"This is eerie - the last time the streets were this empty was during the NATO bombings," said a man interviewed by a television outlet in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


In the Middle East, Moslems shuttered themselves on the orders of clerics. Others flocked to mosques as earthquakes and an out-of-season hailstorm intensified unease. Jordan and Syria declared a national holiday, warning people to stay indoors to avoid eye damage.


Life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came to a standstill, with deserted streets, shops and government offices shut down and cars off the roads. Most Palestinians stayed indoors following repeated warnings by health officials that they should avoid looking at the eclipse at all costs.


By contrast, life in Israel proceeded without interruption, but interest was high, even though only a partial eclipse was visible from Israel and the Palestinian areas. Many of the tens of thousands of Palestinians working in Israel did not show up for work, however.


In some Indian villages, Hindu priests planned to ring temple bells and take turns beating steel plates with sticks to ward off evil.


"They pray so that the sun god is set free. They pray for his release from the clutches of Rahu [the dragon]," social worker Tejabhai Desai said.