NATO Missile Lands in Sofia Suburb

On the night of Wednesday, April 28, 1999, I was watching a football game on German TV, when I heard a huge boom. Not the bang of a gun, but the boom of a large explosion. It set off all of the car alarms in the neighborhood. I went to the south balcony to see if I could see anything (the sound seemed to come from due south), but there's a nine-story building to the south, on higher ground than our building (we live on the eighth floor), so I couldn't see anything. It was late in the evening, so I couldn't see any smoke or anything unusual. When Rali came home about a half-hour later, she said that her taxi driver has told her he had heard on the radio that a missile had struck Sofia.

Missile (1)
Missile (2)

It turns out that it was indeed a NATO anti-radar missile that hit Sofia, near our apartment. NATO's official explanation was that a NATO jet had been illuminated by a Yugoslav air defense site and immediately fired a HARM (High-speed Anti-Radar Missile). The air defense site turned off its radar, and for some reason the missile's targeting system looked for some other radar source...and kept going another 50-60 kilometers past the Yugoslav border, finally coming down in the Sofia suburbs. Or, to use the NATO spokesman's phrase, it "unintentionally landed in Bulgaria."

By the way, this was the fourth NATO missile to land in Bulgaria since the conflict began, but the first to do any damage. There were no deaths or injuries, only a lot of property damage. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that the residents of the house that was hit were home at the time. The father said he was shaving in the upstairs bathroom when the missile slammed into the house, tearing off most of the roof.

For those of you who've visited Sofia, Gorna Banya, the suburb where the missile hit, is southwest of the center, outside the ring road, just west of the highway to Blagoevgrad and Kulata. The house that was hit is about two kilometers from our apartment.

Missile (3)
Chickens nearby

I went over to see the site the next day around lunchtime, which would have been about 14 hours after the missile hit. Figuring it would be best if I didn't advertise that I'm a foreigner, I left my green L.L. Bean jacket home and dressed inconspicuously.

The house is a three-story brick-and-cement house, the standard building material in Eastern Europe. The third story, an apartment-sized attic, was destroyed by the impact. Although the missile did not explode, windows were broken in all of the surrounding houses. Remember that huge boom I heard? That was only from the impact of the missile--without exploding--about two kilomenters away. If it had exploded, this would be a very different, and very bloody, story.

Windows were broken in all surrounding houses. Amazingly, this was the extent of the damage, but there was a lot of this damage. Here's a photo (right) of the windows of a shop across the street.

Broken windows nearby
The glass repair truck

The sound of broken glass being cleaned was everywhere. People were carting wheelbarrows full of glass out of their homes. A local glazier had arrived with equipment on the back of a flatbed truck, and residents were lined up with their empty window frames to be repaired.


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