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From the archives: Internet was once sure St. Pete Pier was site of UFO landing

With a 300-drone light show coming for its first birthday, we look back on that time a laser show at the Pier was mistaken for a UFO sighting.
A photograph from a 1976 Tampa Bay Times story detailing how a St. Petersburg Pier laser art installation did not go as planned.
A photograph from a 1976 Tampa Bay Times story detailing how a St. Petersburg Pier laser art installation did not go as planned. [ Times (1976) ]
Published Jul. 22
Updated Jul. 22

From the archives: In November 2013, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo, who at the time worked for the Tampa Tribune, told this amusing tale debunking what was then a popular online rumor that the St. Pete Pier was once home to an alien landing. With a high-tech drone show coming to the skies July 31 for the Pier’s first birthday, we thought this would be fun to remember.

UFO enthusiasts around the world will be disappointed to learn that despite a current popular online rumor, the St. Petersburg Pier was not once home to an alien landing that has since been covered up by the U.S. government.

The online buzz began building this weekend when someone uploaded a firsthand account, written and illustrated by a mysterious author, of a supposed 1977 St. Petersburg close encounter of the third kind.

The materials include typed and handwritten accounts of a UFO landing in St. Petersburg in 1977 with corresponding sketches that depict spacemen, Revelations-styled five-headed beasts, and a drawing of a tornado emanating beams of light over the St. Petersburg Pier.

Related: St. Pete Pier to celebrate 1st anniversary with 300-drone light show

However, what the author actually witnessed was a then-groundbreaking art installation. And he was not the only one to mistake it for extraterrestrial activity.

In the 1970s, Rockne Krebs was a highly sought-after artist, the first to popularize the use of laser lights as public art. From 1976 through the early 1980s, St. Petersburg was home to one of his unique installations.

Prisms shooting lasers were erected atop the Pier, and mirrors were placed on downtown buildings to reflect the light and create 3-D web-like patterns over the city. Krebs dubbed it “Starboard Home on the Range, Part VI.”

“It was something special,” said Glenn Anderson, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Commission from 1975-82. “He was one of the most avant-garde artists in the country and this was a new concept that no one had seen or heard of before him.”

Its novelty brought fear along with amazement.

St. Petersburg newspaper reports from the 1970s detailed accounts of the lights misfiring through neighborhoods miles away, startling and confusing residents.

Almost 30 years after it was dismantled, the art installation is back in the news in a War of the Worlds type of way.

It’s being called “The Box of Crazy.”

The box is a reference to a wooden artist folio case that once belonged to a man named Daniel Christiansen. The case was found on the side of the road in Asheville, N.C., in 2008.

Five years later, photos of its contents — most of them drawn in the early 1980s — were uploaded Sunday to the social media news website Reddit.

Online UFO forums immediately began buzzing.

The photos were uploaded by Asheville resident Dan Wickham. He said a friend who prefers to remain anonymous was the one who found Christiansen;s case.

“It’s too late for me,” Wickham said. “Once I uploaded the photos I became part of the story.”

Little is known about Christiansen — if he is alive, if he was a resident of St. Petersburg or was visiting, or how his case ended up on the side of the road in Asheville.

Modern-day UFO enthusiasts, equally unaware of the former St. Petersburg art installation, began discussing whether Christiansen’s account gave proof of life on other planets.

Wickham said he did not intend to start an online alien conspiracy. He said he only wanted to share the strange and mysterious contents of the box and had no idea so many people would care about it or its original owner.

“He obviously saw something that changed him,” Wickham said.

What Christiansen witnessed was almost certainly a natural phenomenon occurring at the same time as the futuristic-looking art installation.

In notes found in the folio case, the author often makes reference to the date July 7, 1977. On that day, a tornado whipped through Pasco County.

While that was occurring, he did indeed see lights in the sky above the St. Petersburg Pier.

“You can imagine what a person seeing a laser light show for the first time might think if they had no idea what they saw,” Wickham said. “Then add in a tornado.”

“I understand why people would have been confused by it back then,” said Krebs’ daughter, Heather. “No one knew what to make of his art. It was all so new.”

Heather Krebs said more than 40 cities around the world celebrated her father’s laser light installations throughout his career. He was also a featured artist at the 1981 World’s Fair in Japan and honored with countless national awards and grants for his work. He died in October 2011.

As for Christiansen, the man who was scared by Krebs’ St. Petersburg installation, the online forums are busy with people trying to find out more about the man they believe might have documented a UFO.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Heather Krebs said. “It’s all so bizarre. My father was not into UFOs, but he would have loved this. He enjoyed the unusual and this is definitely unusual.”