ST. PETERSBURG — Charles Sweatt felt something sting his leg during the June 16 Tampa Bay Rays game against the Miami Marlins at Tropicana Field.
He thought he had been hit by a foul ball.
But when Sweatt, the police chief in the tiny Panhandle town of Parker, looked down, there was no ball. Instead, another fan sitting nearby found a bullet.
It appears, authorities said, that the bullet dropped from the sky about 9 p.m. and pelted Sweatt's right thigh. It left a bruise, but nothing more.
"No one really knows where that bullet came from," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt. "It was a falling bullet. That's what it looks like."
Someone could have shot the bullet from miles away, officials said. It happened on the same night, and about the same time, as a shooting near Williams Park, which is about a mile away. In that incident, a man shot at another man numerous times but only grazed him. Police didn't say if they suspect the bullet at the Trop is from that incident.
Sweatt, 54, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, did not require medical treatment, Proffitt said, though paramedics at the Trop did check him out.
While the bullet's origins are unknown, there are recent cases of people in the Tampa Bay area getting hit by celebratory gunfire.
Diego Duran, 13, was severely injured when a .45-caliber bullet hit him in the head this year during a New Year's celebration at his Ruskin home. In that case, Hills- borough County sheriff's deputies surmised that the bullet came from a celebratory shot fired within a mile of the boy's home.
Why did the bullet that hit Sweatt cause relatively little harm while Duran was nearly killed? The answer depends on a number of factors, according to ballistics experts, including the angle at which the gun was pointed when fired and the type of gun used.
A bullet fired at a 90-degree angle will fall slower, says Martin Fackler, a ballistics expert and former Army colonel who headed the Army's Wound Ballistics Laboratory. A bullet fired at a 45-degree angle, as was likely the case with Duran, will reach the ground at a much greater velocity, causing potentially more damage.
"Bullets that go into the air have to come down," said Fackler of Gainesville. "People can get killed from this."
As for those who celebrate by shooting into the air, Fackler said: "They haven't the foggiest idea how dangerous it can be."
It is difficult to determine exactly where the bullet came from in Sweatt's case without knowing more about the bullet itself, Fackler said. Though police would only describe the bullet as "mid-caliber," Fackler said we can assume a few things.
Since the bullet didn't break Sweatt's skin, it had to have been traveling less than 200 feet a second. That suggests it had to have either been fired straight up into the air — which is highly unlikely, since guns are not allowed inside the Trop — or it could have pierced the roof of the building, which would have slowed the bullet's trajectory considerably.
In the latter scenario, the bullet would have a dent in it from hitting the roof, Fackler said.
After the incident, Sweatt went back to watching the game with his family.