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Spirits of Split Rock Quarry

            A quiet residential neighborhood surrounds the abandoned Split Rock Quarry site in Camillus, NY, on the outskirts of Syracuse. From 1834 to 1912 the site was the location of a large-scale limestone mining operation. Limestone was and still is used in much of the world to create sodium carbonate, an inorganic compound also known as soda ash or washing soda. Sodium carbonate is a key ingredient in multiple chemical compounds and processes and is used in laundry detergent, as a water softener, in some glass manufacturing procedures, and various food additives. The quarry was run from the 1880’s until its closure by the Solvay Process Company, headed by Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay, namesake of the nearby town where the limestone was processed.

            In 1915 the quarry was re-opened and re-purposed as a munitions factory producing TNT–– as well as its main building blocks, picric and nitric acid– for the allies fighting in World War I. By 1918 the Split Rock quarry was producing close to a quarter of all TNT used by the U.S. military. It was not unusual for millions of pounds of the volatile explosives to be in storage at the factory at any given time. More than 2500 people worked at the Split Rock factory, including 300 patrolmen trained to spot and fight munitions fires. Small fires did apparently occur somewhat regularly and were an accepted hazard of the process that were quickly addressed.

            On the evening of July 2, 1918, the second shift was in full swing when at approximately 8:30 PM an alarm whistle delivered the news that something was wrong. TNT Building 1, where the explosives were manufactured, was on fire. Apparently the result of a faulty, overheated bearing on a grinding machine, the fire was quickly addressed by the fire patrol members. The firemen kept the flames at bay for about ten minutes, disaster loomed mightily over them as a portion of the roof gave way. Night winds blew through the building, stoking the flames. A loss of water pressure to the firemen’s hoses followed soon after.

            Though some of the men did abandon their posts as the flames began to take over the 140-foot-long wooden structure, most stayed on hand, doing what they could while waiting for the water pressure to return. This never happened, however, and as the flames spread, the facilities power went out, leaving only firelight to see by. Knowing that an explosion was now imminent the men began to flee the building, but, sadly, many of them never made it free of the blast zone.

            Witnesses described a massive ball of flaming debris shoot into the air and split apart like hellish fireworks. Flaming bodies flew hundreds of feet through the air landing in grotesque piles throughout the obliterated complex. Completely engulfed men fought to get their flaming clothes off as they ran from the blast zone. The explosion shook residences on the other side of Syracuse, over four miles away. The bright red sky could be seen many miles away.

            The most immediate fear was that the strong southern winds would push the flames across the complex to the storage facility on Canada Hill which held some 1.8 million pounds of TNT at the time. Had the winds not died down and changed direction the disaster might have been much worse, wish some estimating an explosion that could have leveled much of the city of Syracuse and the surrounding townships.

            In the end at least 50 men lost their lives, though some estimates put the number closer to 60. Some of the victims were found still holding now melted hose nozzles, some had to be identified through dental records and clothing or based on timesheets or wedding rings. Some victims died due to toxic gas inhalation and appeared to not be otherwise injured. Some others were completely disintegrated by the blast.

            The remaining fires were extinguished the following day and the business of assessing and cleaning up after the disaster began. To help with this, and to keep curiosity seekers away, the National Guard was brought in. Curiously the explosion drove thousands of snakes from the nearby woods out into the open, bedeviling area residents and interlopers alike. World War I came to an end in November of 1918 and the plant was never re-opened.

            A memorial published in the Syracuse Herald in the days following the Split Rock disaster favorably compared the fallen men to soldiers giving their lives in the European theater of war. “They were as surely soldiers of civilization as are their brothers in khaki,” it read. “They knew the danger. They accepted the challenge. They were heroes in that they died courageously, fighting to protect their city from disaster.”

            Today the Split Rock Quarry is protected as a New York State Unique Area. All that remains of the facility is a large, somewhat stone structure, a crusher, built into the cliffs, with man-made tunnels beneath it. Interestingly the site is one of the few areas in North America where the hart’s tongue fern is known to grow.

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            If abject tragedies, punctuated by gruesome death, are the common ingredients necessary to produce a haunting, then we must agree that Split Rock Quarry is a site that meets these requirements. If a haunting is a reflection of extreme violence, a strange anomaly of physics wherein human suffering itself is imprinted on a location, then again, we would seem to have a match. And indeed, local lore does speak of strange experiences and encounters at the location.

            The veracity of these reports may be lacking from some perspectives. A sociologist might point out that ‘ghost stories’ could be more a psychological construct–– a method of gaining perspective on and coming to acceptance of a traumatic event such as the Split Rock tragedy and its impact on a wide cultural swath. Over time these stories can often take on a life of their own, leading to a certain level of self-fulfilling prophesy and proliferation.

            But, speaking as someone who has explored the site a bit, I will say that there is a heavy, somewhat creepy, abience about the place, even on a sunny summer afternoon. It is also quite beautiful and lives up to its status as a unique area. Bike trails track back and forth across the site and the massive stone crusher looks on incongruently over the sloping, often rocky terrain. Long flat slabs of hard stone mixed with shale and basalt contrast with more heavily foliaged areas, and provide an uneven walkway, leading to the graffitied cliffs running behind the top of the multi-storied crusher. Beneath this imposing structure lies a long, narrow, tunnel that I thought was creepy, and my dog found totally unacceptable.

            The strange phenomena reported at Split Rock seems to fall into the residual haunting category for the most part. Disembodied voices are heard with no discernable source. Rushing footsteps and the sound of machinery starting have also been detailed by numerous people. Some have also reported seeing ethereal figures around the crusher and on the cliffs above.

            These ghostly beings often have a green or yellow hue to them. This is said to be a result of the chemicals that the men worked with, which would change their skin tone after long periods of exposure. Unusual white mist- like shapes have been photographed in the tunnel below the crusher along with some interesting orbs. Sometimes the sightings of these figures are also associated with random cold spots.

            Another commonly detailed example of haunting activity at Split Rock is the sound of rocks either being thrown or, perhaps, chipped at by a pickax. This phenomenon was apparently captured on video by a pair of paranormal investigators in 2012. A sound like rocks falling or smashing against the stone walls of the tunnel is clearly heard with no apparent source. The startled reaction of the investigator appears very genuine.

            Researchers have also reported limbs going numb inside of the tunnel and the sensation of being touched. Some have reported their hair being flopped about and clothing being pulled at. EVP recordings have also been captured, including a ghostly whistling and someone saying they want to ‘tag along,’ either with the paranormal investigators or maybe their fellow fire patrolmen from over 100 years ago.

            None of this evidence could be considered conclusive from a scientific point of view. The subjective nature of the activity means that, depending on background, beliefs, and the nature of human perception, no accepted conclusion can evolve. This is one of the reasons the scientific community is so unwilling to study this kind of phenomena. There is a deeply held ability of the human mind to perceive what it wants to perceive, despite observed reality and any paranormal investigator worth their salt should acknowledge this before diving into these mysterious experiences.

            Still, the heavy aura I experienced at Split Rock means that I won’t discount these reports. The collective psychic trauma of that horrible explosion might somehow still hang over the place, bleeding through now and then to the unsuspecting passerby or very aware investigators alike. Could there be spirits of dead that still wander the site, perhaps some of those 15 or so men whose bodies were never identified?

A theory that some paranormal investigators support, says that certain types of rock, including limestone, might have the ability to record psychic impressions. If this is true, then perhaps the site really has been playing that terror filled night back, over and over for all this time. Maybe it will take ages of Central New York weather to erode this foreboding darkness from Split Rock Quarry. Rest in peace, brave men.

UFO’s Over the Finger Lakes

            The topic of Unidentified Flying Objects has become embedded in our cultural identity. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Signs, television programs like The X-Files and Ancient Aliens, and a thriving industry of sometimes questionable investigative reporting in all media, keep the question of what these unusual objects might be alive in our minds. Some might say that the media are simply feeding our collective need to believe in something beyond ourselves, but the sheer volume of credible reports from people of all walks of life around the world would seem to show that the phenomena is more than just a fanciful new mythology.

            The study of UFOs, like any scientific mystery, should start with an examination of all available evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence in this case consists largely of eyewitness accounts and a growing amount of video and photographic data. This doesn’t stop people from presenting certain ideas as facts. Even the concept that UFOs are extraterrestrial in nature is only a theory after all. But many, many people present it and other concepts, like the Ancient Alien theory, for example, as facts. In the United States, this issue, combined with a government that has mostly denied the reality of UFOs, until recently, has led to a lack of interest in serious scientific study by most major institutions.

            All of that may be changing now with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena gaining some credibility from none other than the U.S. government. Whereas former programs like Project Bluebook and the Air Force funded Condon Committee seemed geared more towards trying to explain away the majority of the sightings they investigated, in recent years the military and other agencies have acknowledged that the phenomena are indeed real. This may seem like a small admission, but it’s a definite departure from the previous policy of near total denial.

The release of the now famous ‘tic-tac’ UFO video, acquired by the Navy, and a limited amount of other information, may be evidence of a new era of openness from the United States Government regarding UFOs.The admission that military craft have encountered objects that can travel at vastly higher speeds than known aircraft and perform maneuvers that seem to be beyond what is possible with known technology is a huge step. They draw the line there, however, not speculating on the origin of these objects that have been seen traveling below the ocean waves as well as above.

            The Finger Lakes region of New York State was the central vicinity of a UFO flap in the later 1960’s that was investigated to some degree by members of the Condon Committee. Between March of 1966 and November of 1968 Seneca, Cayuga and Tompkins Counties saw a proliferation of reports of strange objects in the sky. Many of these sightings have multiple eyewitnesses and in several cases these witnesses were police officers. Whereas the veracity of testimony given by an officer of the law, or the military, shouldn’t necessarily be given the gold star of authentication on merits alone, these accounts are generally well documented and corroborated.

            The March 31, 1966, edition of the Ithaca Journal features an article detailing reports from three separate police agencies. Officers from the Geneva police and the Seneca and Cayuga Sheriffs Departments all reported identical sightings. The object in question appeared to be roughly 5000 feet in the air, was apparently silent, and featured white, blue, and red lights. Though conjecture of the time seemed to lean towards it being a plane of some sort from the nearby Griffiss Air Force base in Rome, the UFO’s behavior and characteristics are unlike any known military craft of the time. It should also be noted that there were multiple citizen reports phoned in to the police departments as well.

Initially sighted over Geneva and moving towards Weedsport, the object would stop periodically and hover silently before moving on. Whereas the argument could be made that a helicopter could do this as well, you’d want to believe the police officers would be able to distinguish a helicopter from something more mysterious in the clear night sky. The object’s next move was more bewildering anyway however, as it suddenly switched directions a sped out of sight at a very high rate of speed.

The officers’ description of that instant acceleration and the substantial speed of the UFO certainly adds to the mystery. One of the more grounded theories is that it may have been an experimental project being run out of the Rome Air Development Center at the Griffiss base, one of several Air Force Research Laboratory branches spread throughout the United States. The object’s behavior most closely resembles that of modern commercial and military drones, so was this some highly advanced secret project? If so no evidence that this was the case has ever come forward.

Beginning in the summer of 1967 and picking up significantly in October, multiple sightings were reported of unusual objects above Newfield, New York, in Tompkins County. Residents described seeing these UFOs on a nearly nightly basis for several weeks and gave a description that bore some similarities to the craft observed in 1966. Described in the November 2nd, 1967, Ithaca Journal as sometimes only being a white light and sometimes also having flashing red and blue lights that seemed to move independently at times, the UFOs also displayed unusual behavior. This included speeding away, sometimes straight up into the sky at high rates of speed from a dead stop and sometimes seeming to wink out of sight.

By mid-November multiple residents were seeing strange things in the skies above their town. As described in another Journal article from December of 67’, people were seeing ‘sometimes erratically moving’ bright lights that were ‘invariably silent.’ Eventually there would be thousands of reports in what became known as the Newfield UFO Flap, most essentially describing objects with similar characteristics. Comparing the maneuvers of these objects with those of whatever that tic-tac really is in those Navy videos and drawing a connection would be a leap, but perhaps not a huge one as the similarities are evident.

Some other unusual phenomena mentioned were large stationary red lights that would interact with smaller green, white and blue ones. Some witnesses described lights forming triangular patterns in the sky and smaller lights circling a bright circular object. Animals reacted unusually during these periods of activity as well. When objects hovered or were otherwise observed nearby dogs would howl wildly, cats would flip out and run into walls and furniture as they ran to hide, horses would nay loudly for long periods and cows would utter low miserable moans.

In late October a couple reported seeing an object “as big as a high school gymnasium” hovering over a residential area as they drove down the street. They watched whatever it was for two or three minutes before realizing that it was something unknown. Bewildered, the couple stopped their car and got out to get a better look, but the object disappeared.

An incident reported by two boys, 10- and 12- years old describes another low flying craft. These neighborhood friends were residing on the 10-year old’s family porch on Main Street in Newfield when they said they saw a bright light travelling from the North. The light stopped above and slightly behind houses across the street from the boys and hovered there momentarily. The object then tilted slightly, revealing two square windows. In these windows the boys claimed to see figures standing that did not appear human. When they ran to get an adult, the craft righted itself and disappeared. Other members of the boys’ families did see similar objects after this experience but from farther away.

The story reported by these boys may seem to take the high strangeness to an even more unbelievable level, but it’s worth noting that thousands of similar sightings have come in from all around the world. This fact was noted by Physicist and UFO researcher, J. Allen Hynek who was also on hand to study the Newfield flap at the time. A sighting from December of 67’ on Aurora Street in Ithaca does bare some similarities to the boys’ story. In this sighting a couple watched an object hovering over their house for roughly 90 minutes. At one point the husband said he could also see windows with figures in them. Then the object shot straight up into the air and disappeared.

While the Newfield cluster seemed to be a sort of epicenter for the activity, strange phenomena continued to be reported throughout the region. Two stories from the 1968 Elmira Star-Gazette relate UFO sightings. On the 20th police officers from Seneca, Yates, and Schuyler counties reported an object travelling above Seneca Lake. Described as being completely silent and having many colored ‘sparkly flashing lights’ the officers watched the object moving over Watkins Glen and then out of sight. A resident also called this one in.

An article from the 29th discusses 5 UFO sightings in the area. A Moravia man detailed the harrowing tail of an unknown craft that hovered over his car for 5 minutes. The car stalled out and lost all power, not even the radio would work. Then the craft was gone, and the man’s car started up normally. Police in Bath, New York, observed an odd craft maneuvering in the sky for over 90 minutes. A couple driving home on the night of the 26th of November witnessed a UFO near a Montour Falls power station. This object was described as primarily bright yellow with secondary blue and white lights.

The distressing story of a 24-year-old mother’s encounter with an unusual object on December 12th of 1967 made it to the pages of the July, 68’ issue of Science and Mechanics Magazine. As her son sat in the back seat, the mother claimed a bright white UFO with red and blue lights around it shot a bright beam of light at her car and somehow took control of it.

Initially thinking she was caught in a police spotlight; the woman began to panic as her car was moved to the side of the road without her assistance. Though she claimed the car was still idling roughly and she was attempting to apply the gas and turning the wheel, the vehicle travelled only to the side of the road, eventually ending up some 15 feet off the highway. Her 6-year-old in the back seat seemed to be hypnotized and would have no recollection of the incident later. After roughly 7 minutes the car moved back over to the highway and the woman was once more in control. The object was gone.

As the 1970’s got under way the UFO activity in and around the Finger Lakes region seemed to die down considerably, though notable reports have continued to filter in over the years. Amongst these is another report from a police officer who experienced an unusual sighting near his home in Slaterville, NY, just outside of Ithaca, in 1975. The officer, his wife, and a neighbor observed an oval shaped object approximately 600 feet from the back of his home, hovering at the tree line over a corn field.

The roughly 200-foot-wide craft had porthole style windows running around it, though no figures were seen inside this time. It was described as having a ‘metallic skin’ and white lights running along the bottom. Intermittently beams of light would shoot out of the object, all over the corn field. To the officer observing, who was also a war vet, the UFO’s behavior could possibly be likened to mapping missions taken on by military aircraft. The object moved very slowly across the corn field for at least a half hour, with the officer standing on the roof of his car, trying to get the objects attention for much of that time. Perhaps fortunately, the craft didn’t react to this behavior and eventually moved out of sight.

Other eyewitnesses came forward to report seeing the Slaterville object, but mostly without enthusiasm and in some cases, years later, due to the fear of ridicule. Especially in these rural communities, it seems, reports of this nature marked many for derision. When, in 1978, The Ithaca Journal reached to several of the original 67’-68’ Newfield UFO Flap witnesses, most were unwilling to come forward again. Some begged to keep their names out of the news and at least one threatened to sue.

It’s out of respect for folks like this that we’ve not reported the names of any eyewitnesses here. To bear witness to events such as those described, then have the bravery and an often-overriding drive–in some cases– to share these incredible, frightening, overwhelming things, only then to be met with mockery or violent repudiation from your peers is an unfortunate example of some toxic human psychology at play. Whereas a healthy skepticism regarding any UFO report should be considered necessary both from a scientific and an everyday life perspective, the operative word here is healthy.

Unfortunately, there can be no hard conclusions drawn based on the evidence we have. The volume of reports and the extremely credible nature of many of the people involved would seem to indicate that something unusual did take place in the skies above Newfield’s Connecticut Hill and across the Finger Lakes back in the late 1960’s. Though many theories have been put forth in the years since–– mass delusion, swamp gas, and Chinese lantern-like balloons among them–– most don’t hold up to closer scrutiny when compared with the details of the eyewitness accounts.

Given the similarities between these accounts and the craft the military have reported encountering some 50 years later, we may finally be coming full circle on the topic of UFOs. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of a period to true and thorough scientific study of this phenomena. Whatever these experiences may turn out to be, interstellar visitors, time travelers, or somehow previously undiscovered examples of good ol’ human ingenuity, a collective willingness to discover the truth may be all we really need. The National UFO Reporting Center has a vast database of UFO sightings available for study at nuforc.org.

Flying Metal- The Life of H.B. ‘Toby’ Halicki

Often times, when we think of movie stars, larger than life personas instantly come to mind. To some, people like Brad Pitt, Samuel Jackson, or for us 80’s kids, Arnold Shwartzenegger and Meg Ryan, might embody this idea. We don’t know if H. B. “Toby” Halicki had visions of being the star of anything other than his own dreams when he packed up and left his home in Western New York for California at the age of 15, but we do know he had a strong and fiercely original personality. And the path he took, from talented mechanic and businessman to producer, director, and star of one of the most beloved independent films of the 1970’s, paints a picture of a self-determined, independent, American original; a man who lived and, tragically, died, doing things exactly the way he wanted to.

            Born in Dunkirk, NY, in 1940, Henry Bernard Halicki was by all accounts a bright and resolute child who developed an aptitude for mechanics at the successful garage run by his father. Henry, who preferred to be called Toby for most of his life, enjoyed the company of his 12 siblings, by all accounts, but did struggle with living under his parent’s rule. “Their old school ways were not for me,” Toby said in a 1965 interview for the Gardena Valley News.

So, he hitched a ride to California with an uncle and started working part-time, first pumping gas, then as a mechanic, while attending Gardena-High School half-time. His talents soon got him national attention. Not only was he making lucrative amounts of money customizing hotrods for the children of film and television moguls, Toby Halicki was also racking up a number of awards for customizations. In 1956 he won the “Best-In-Show” trophy for a Buick Century stock car he had supped up and also found himself, at 16 years old, in the pages of Motor Life and other top gear-head magazines of the day.

Occasionally he’d get a dose of humility reporting to court to address the numerous traffic citations he received speeding down the Gardena boulevards in his custom rides. “… my cars were so good the police started watching for me,” Toby recalled in a 1975 interview with the Lexington Leader. Nothing slowed him down though and by the age of 18 Halicki bought his first home. Soon he had diversified into insurance, real estate, and an expansive junkyard and autobody business.

By the mid- sixties, Halicki was beyond financially stable, owning multiple properties, Cadillacs, as well as his successful businesses. He would grab headlines at this time with the introduction of the “Toby Cart,” which was a fully conceived, motorized skateboard. Johnny Carson famously demonstrated this first of its kind device on the Tonight Show. The .85 H.P. skateboard could travel up to 18 mph and was designed to operate on the same principles as people powered boards, just considerably faster.

It’s clear that Toby was a very driven young man, (take the pun as you will) with equal measures of business acumen and rebellious zest for independence. Many of the paths Halicki took were in, or as the result of, his work on automobiles. A realist with a strong mechanical aptitude from a young age Toby once said of cars, “I don’t like them, but I am interested in them.” If vehicles were the means to financial freedom for the young entrepreneur, a wild sense of adventure provided the wings to his next endeavor, being a stunt driver for the film industry. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the role of film director wasn’t far off for Toby Halicki.

Love me Deadly was a low-budget, 1972 horror film with Toby listed as Associate Producer and actor, playing the unimaginatively titled role of Race Driver. The film was not a huge success, but it was the summation of experiences that clearly set gears to work in Halicki’s mind as he considered the possibilities before him. Though he apparently shopped some ideas around the film lots he had become familiar with in the area, the idea of compromising his ideas to fit within the studio system didn’t sit well with Toby, and, unsurprisingly, he set out on his own.

This passion project became one of the most successful independent films ever produced and is still considered a cult classic. Gone in 60 Seconds, released in 1974, set standards for the Gearhead genre, inspiring many of the more mainstream features to come. The story of the film’s production has become legendary. Halicki directed, produced, and starred in Gone in 60 Seconds as well as coordinating and performing most of the wild stunts.

Many of the cars in the film were from Toby’s private collection or were purchased by him at public auctions. The police cars and garbage truck used for the final chase were acquired in this way. The cars lined up along the roadways during the final chase are mostly Toby’s and if viewers are quick, they can pick out the same cars used in different scenes. The four modified 1971 Mustang Sportsroofs, nicknamed ‘Eleanor’ in the film, were portrayed by two cars that were modified by Halicki. These modifications included adding a roll-cage and other safety features for the ‘stunt’ Eleanor, updating the cars with 1973 grilles and swapping their seats. 250 man hours were put into making the stunt vehicle as safe as possible.

Halicki plays the improbably named Maindrian Pace, a mild-mannered insurance investigator and, conveniently enough, chop shop owner who also secretly leads a successful crew of underground car thieves. When a South American drug lord offers Pace almost a cool half million dollars for the delivery of 48 specific cars, it’s an offer that is too good to refuse. As Pace and his team set out on this mission, they take the audience along for a cranked-up adventure that was, at the time, a high-speed, gear-shifting, car wrecking fantasy come true for many who became lifelong fans of the film.

Most of the cast and crew of Gone In 60 Seconds are not professionals. Performers in the film included Halicki’s girlfriend at the time, Marion Busia and his brother, Ronald Halicki. The director also recruited two successful race-car drivers, Gary Bettenhausen and Parnelli Jones, for roles in the film as well as race promoter and car owner J.C. Agajanian. Most of the pedestrians seen in the film are the real thing and were completely clueless that a film was even being made. In some cases, people on the street rushed into scenes to help the accident “victims.”

Gone In 60 Seconds is perhaps most famous for the 40-minute car chase that concludes the film, as Pace is put in the crosshairs of the police by the backstabbing drug lord while he’s trying to deliver Eleanor, the final of the 48 cars. This chase is notable for the sheer volume of mayhem it produces. At least 93 cars were destroyed during the making of the film, mostly during that epic final chase.

Notable wrecks and stunts from this sequence include a 10-car chain reaction pile up, a pedestrian vehicle torn in half by the pursuing police, Halicki wiping out hard into a telephone pole, a smashed sofa that comes along for the ride, a thoroughly destroyed shopping cart, leading police through and around both a Cadillac dealership as well as a dusty construction site, many wrecked police cars, and the incredible last jump that finally allows our hero to escape his pursuers.

That ultimate stunt saw Toby reach a height of 30 feet in the air while travelling an amazing 42 yards, nearly half a football field, before coming down hard on the highway. Then and now this would be considered an impressive and daring achievement, a fact the director was keenly aware of. The jump and landing are shown to the audience a few times in the sequence, from different perspectives, and different speeds, slow motion to over-cranked to great creative effect. Toby paid a price for the leap, compacting ten vertebrae on the rough landing.

Unfortunately, this relatively minor injury wasn’t the only one that Toby would suffer during production of Gone in 60 Seconds. Remember the scene during the chase that sent Halicki careening into a telephone pole at 100 miles per hour? It wasn’t planned at all. One of the stunt drivers got too close, just tapping the front of stunt Eleanor, sending her and her driver spinning across the highway. Halicki was knocked unconscious, broke a leg and several ribs. Shooting had to be stopped for several weeks while he recovered. Upon regaining consciousness, Halicki’s first words were, “Did we get coverage?”–yes, he wanted to verify that his near fatal accident was captured on film. Of course, he left it in. He completed shooting in a full leg cast.

There were other unexpected incidents and near misses during production. The most serious of these occurred when Halicki overshot his braking mark, causing him to strike one of the unmarked patrol cars, launching it towards J.C. Agajanian jr. who was portraying a detective. Only fast reflexes saved Agajanian from coming to serious harm or death. The accident can be seen in the film, including Agajanian’s desperate escape. Another incident that could have easily turned tragic involved one of the police cars rolling over, with the collapsed roof and police light mount nearly crushing the driver. Less seriously, but considerably more costly from a financial perspective was another missed brake mark in the scene filmed at the Cadillac dealership. This time Toby struck a row of brand-new Caddy’s and was forced to buy them all.

Once filming was complete, and the arduous process of editing a largely improvised movie with no script beyond a few pages of dialog had finally been tackled to everyone’s liking, it was time to find a distributor for the film. Toby had little luck finding a deal that was satisfactory, so he set about doing it his own way. Gone in 60 Seconds became the first of several films distributed by the H.B. Halicki Junkyard and Mercantile Company. Toby would fly from city to city across the country doing interviews and promotional events for the premiere of the film.

Of course, Halicki made sure the movie had its East Coast premiere in his hometown of Dunkirk, NY. He made a point to arrive in style, jumping a car over a railroad embankment to the delight of fans. Not one to forget his roots or his family, the junkman turned filmmaker always took the time to cycle back to the relative calm of his childhood stomping grounds.

Though the initial distribution of the film had some bumps, including being locked out of the Los Angeles market initially, Toby’s roadshow tour made good headway and once the film was launched in Europe it became a hit there in short order. When all was said and done, and all the doctor bills had been paid, the film had cost roughly a million dollars to produce. Toby was quickly pulling in many multiples of this initial investment, with the film’s final returns coming in at 40 million dollars. Toby Halicki had accomplished what few could, fulfilled a vision and presented it to the world in a cohesive enough fashion for it to be very successful.

After riding the wave of that success for the rest of the 70’s, the filmmaking drive came back strong for Toby in the early 80’s. Released in 1982, The Junkman didn’t stray far from the Gone in 60 Seconds formula. The plot this time deals with Halicki’s title character, Harlan B. Hollis, contending with hitmen hired by a jealous brother-in-law, but its all just an excuse for a number of wild chases and escapes to play out. The production values are higher this time and some real actors are on hand as well, including Christopher Stone, Hoyt Axton and Linda Day George. The venue has changed as well with most of the action in The Junkman taking place in more rural settings.

One of the ways our filmmaker upped the ante this time was by including airplanes in the mix. There are a number of chases between planes and cars in this film, with some impressive stunts. Amongst these are an incredible scene where Halicki jumps his over one of the low flying stunt planes. Though forced perspective helped to make this shot look more dangerous than it really was, it does illustrate an incredibly well planned and executed stunt and, further, shows the professionalism that Halicki demanded. This included rigorous safety measures and the inclusion of some more professional advisors.

If Toby’s safety-conscious side was well served by his fastidiousness, it unfortunately seemed to be rivaled at times by his overall drive to push himself beyond his own high expectations. The accident that nearly claimed Halicki’s life this time involved a stunt plane smashing into the car he was driving. Meant to be a near miss, the pilot instead made contact with the car’s hood, destroying the roof, windshield, and front end of the car before crashing nearby. Toby’s scalp was seriously gashed open, requiring numerous stitches. The thick bloody bandage he wears for the remainder of the film is for real. Fortunately, the pilot was unharmed in the incident.

The film set a world record for most vehicles destroyed during filming at 150 cars and one plane. This record stood for over 20 years. Ultimately, The Junkman was a modest success that did manage to up the stakes of its predecessor, though it couldn’t match the raw, kinetic appeal or charm of Gone In 60 Seconds. It also proved that Toby was capable of working more closely with the industry that he had almost completely shunned the first time around.

Sadly, Halicki’s next film, Deadline Auto Theft, released in 1983, would be his last completed project. A bit of an oddity and an early example of meta fiction, the film essentially adds a new subplot to Gone in 60 Seconds, recycling that film’s footage along with the chase scene from The Junkman, employing a film within a film plot device that is as clever as it is contrived, and throwing in songwriting legend and actor, Hoyt Axton, along for the ride once again in an expanded role. The film may have primarily been meant for foreign markets as it’s the first to be distributed through the then freshly minted Halicki International.

The idea of doing a higher budget, direct sequel to Gone In 60 Seconds had been a long gesticulating plan of Halicki’s. Filming finally began in the summer of 1989. Newly married to his long-time girlfriend and working on the east coast for a change, Toby was by all accounts happy and excited to be near family and friends in and around Dunkirk, and the greater Buffalo township of Tonawanda, NY. By mid-August they had some impressive stuff in the can, including footage of a uniquely modified vehicle known as Car-nage. This bright yellow wedge-shaped hotrod, designed to flip vehicles or anything else in its wake is shown laying waste to a slew of police cars in this impressive and well-produced scene.

The imagination and skills of a maturing filmmaker show so clearly in these and other completed rushes of the film, it’s hard not to believe that Toby would have had another hit on his hands, but, tragically, fate intervened on August 20th, 1989.

Toby had been in a two-month battle with Tonawanda and Buffalo officials to allow a stunt involving the toppling of a water tower to go forward, with one official accusing the director/ actor/ producer of “flying by the seat of his pants.” Toby defended the safety precautions being taken by himself and his crew and was finally allowed to proceed with the stunt after securing $8 million worth of insurance.

A harrowing string of freak circumstances occurred as the stunt was being prepared. The partially sawed legs of the water tower gave out prematurely, sending it to the ground and the crew scrambling. As it fell, the tower snapped a wire, which subsequently sliced through a telephone pole, sending it down directly on Toby Halicki. Life saving measures were taken at the scene and he was quickly rushed to the hospital, where he was, sadly pronounced dead a short time later.

It may seem ironic that this man who had taken so many risks and had so many close calls behind the wheels of various automobiles, would meet his end in a way that was completely unexpected, but also maybe not as surprising as it should have been. There’s no way around the rough edges of his films, nor the recklessness inherent in Toby’s audacious creative process, but that mad approach did produce something unique, engaging, and at times almost magical. Toby Halicki made films the way he lived his life, on his own terms, independently and with a swagger that was mostly well earned. His movies certainly weren’t made to impress film critics, they didn’t have wildly complex plots or many big-name actors, but they did have soul and the literal blood of a highly original creative force.

Toby’s legacy lives on. Gone In 60 Seconds has shown up on streaming services more and more in recent years though modern audiences may be more familiar with the big budget, Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie from the early 2000s. All of Toby’s films can be found on Youtube as well along with some other clips and interviews that fans might find interesting. One of these is a short clip where Toby recalls his head on collision with an airplane while filming The Junkman. “These are the dangers of making a stunt movie,” the filmmaker says while recounting the meticulousness necessary to pull off any stunt successfully. “… You have no one but yourself to blame if something does go wrong.”

Nys unsolved missing: Mark ramen

Mark Donald Ramen

On the night of January 18th 2002, Mark Ramin left his job at the Pyramid Mall in Lansing, New York, to walk home to the nearby apartment that he shared with his brother. Unfortunately, Mark never made it home that night and officially no one has seen him since.

            To all outward appearances that night seemed to go just like so many others for Mark who worked at the Sunglass Hut. He was seen leaving the mall at around 10:30 PM to make the trek home to Winthrop Drive, a distance of more than a mile, on a chilly New York night, with a high temperature of only 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Mark’s route would have been pretty direct, once escaping the mall’s parking lot, he would have taken North Triphammer Road, over Route 13 to his apartment on Winthrop Drive, a distance of roughly a mile and a half.

Mark’s disappearance was quickly noted by his brother the next morning. His very alarmed mother immediately notified authorities of his disappearance, explaining that this was very unusual behavior for her normally punctual and responsible son. To their credit, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s office did not make the family wait it out as is sometimes the case when adults go missing. Within days multiple searches of the wilderness near the mall, Fall Creek and the area surrounding Mark’s apartment were underway.

These searches were conducted by a combination of law enforcement officers and volunteers and included police helicopters and search and rescue dogs. Mark’s family put up thousands of flyers, doing their best to keep the image of their kind faced, bespectacled, unassuming, son and brother in front of the world. But no leads ever solidified, and no trace of Mark has ever been found. At one point a psychic that the family had consulted suggested that Mark had taken a ride from the wrong individual, someone Mark knew, with a stranger in the back seat.

Of course, even without psychic abilities, one could easily draw the conclusion that Mark fell victim to some kind of foul play. Because, if it wasn’t something nefarious, what other possibilities could explain his disappearance? If some sort of medical emergency had befallen him on the way home, it’s highly unlikely that he wouldn’t have turned up in the multiple searches that followed. In some circles Mark’s disappearance would raise the specter of possible alien abductions and the like. All that can be said about this possibility is that there is zero evidence to support it, much like every other theory.

Even after 10PM on a Friday night, North Triphammer Road would have had a decent amount of traffic still, but no one ever came forward to report that they had seen Mark on his walk home. This, combined with the chilly temperatures, indicates to me that he probably did get a ride with someone. I’m sure the police would have followed up on this- and Mark was seen leaving the mall on foot- so, did someone come along and offer him a ride on the short walk from the mall to North Triphammer Road? One unconfirmed sighting puts Mark at the Tops Market near the mall after his shift. Could he have met up with someone there for a ride?

The lack of hard answers only adds to the frustration felt both by those close to Mark and the local sheriff’s office. The depth of loss experienced by his mother, Kathleen Bierce, came through in a 2006 interview with The Ithaca Journal. “There’s no such thing as closure,” she said. “Everyday I wake up with him on my mind. Everyday I go to bed with him on my mind.” The possibility of filling the empty space left by Mark’s disappearance grows more unlikely as the years go on.

One of the reasons Mark’s story resonates with me so much, I think, is that I spent a lot my youth at that mall, now known as the Shops at Ithaca Mall. It was a place where I went to many movies and enthusiastically threw many, many tokens into various games in what was a pretty decent arcade for a long time. I spent many hours there with friends and family. I’ve driven North Triphammer countless times.

Maybe that’s why Mark’s story gnaws at me so much. I do wonder how it affects the person or persons responsible for Mark’s disappearance. I hope it wears on them as well. I hope it sits in the pit of their stomach and doesn’t let them sleep at night. And I hope that guilt will eventually force them to come clean. If they have a shred of humanity within them… But it’s been 20 years at this point and no one has come forward yet.

In my research I came across a sort of human-interest story featuring Mark from November of 1977. The gist of the article is that Mark was a fine upstanding 10th grader who really broke the mold of all those other teenagers wasting their lives watching the dreaded television. That bit of dated ageism aside we get a great sense of the kind of gentle, intelligent and thoughtful person Mark was even at 16 years of age as the article describes his busy life.

A big part of that life, and that journal article, was Mark’s work at the McGraw House, a retirement home in Ithaca. Mark enjoyed assisting the elderly, bowling on Saturday mornings and, yes, watching TV in moderation. “Of course there are sour apples who give every generation a bad name,” the teenaged Mark said. “They get all the notice so people think everyone in that generation is the same. You could say the same for adults couldn’t you?” The kindness and intellect of Mark as a young man comes through so clearly here and really illustrates the kind of person he was and by all accounts remained throughout his life.

Anyone that has ever researched the topic of missing persons understands what a sad and deep hole it can be. According to worldpopulationreview.com, at the time of this writing there are 606 missing in New York State. Statistically we know that the vast majority of these cases will be resolved, normally within a year or less. But for some that resolution remains unfulfilled. In the 20 years since Mark’s disappearance a number of people have disappeared in the Finger Lakes, Central and Southern Tiers regions, leaving no solid clues or suspects.

Here we present a short and incomplete list of some of the most confounding of these cases.

  • Bambi Madden was last seen at around 11pm on January 11th, 2006. She was leaving her apartment in Binghamton for a short walk to a nearby convenience store. There has been no sign of the 31 year old mother of two since. Bambi is 5’4” with blond hair and blue eyes, weighing between 100-115lbs.
  • Edward Brian Tandler left the house he shared with roommates on Cowell Road in Spencer sometime on June 24, 2005. Travelling on foot, he may have been heading to Ithaca, but has not been seen since. Tandler was 44 at the time of his disappearance and is described as being 5’10” tall, 160lbs with brown or salt and pepper hair and glasses.
  • Bethany Dougherty, a 40 year old mother of three, disappeared from her Killawog home sometime in the early morning hours of April 1, 2008. Though neighbors reported a woman screaming at around 3am, when Bethany would have been getting ready for work, police found nothing at the time and the connection wasn’t made until Bethany’s son reported her missing several hours later. Bethany is described as 5’ 10” tall, 160lbs with auburn hair.
  • Chester E. Labar was last seen on October 2, 2016 at the NYPENN Trade Center in Johnson City. His apartment was found abandoned by his family after he could not be reached. Oddly they found only a lit candle there. Chester is described as 5’8” tall around 140lbs with dark hair and eyes. He wears glasses and has many tattoos. He was 37 years old at the time of his disappearance.

Sadly, these cases barely scratch the surface when it comes to unsolved and sometimes very mysterious disappearances from this area of New York. While some cases, while remaining unsolved, do point at least in some direction that may one day lead to a resolution, others remain elusive and strange. It is with no disrespect to Mark Ramin that I lump his case into this category. At the heart of the mystery is a very real, very loved, multi-dimensional human being who deserves more than to be remembered for the enigma that surrounds his disappearance.

Someone out there might have a missing piece of information in Mark’s or one of the other cases mentioned. Nothing I can say here will force such a person to come forward of course. But maybe someone out there does have deep guilt that won’t let them sleep on certain nights. Maybe karma has started to creep up on them, maybe its digging at them right now. All they have to do to relieve it is come clean, the easiest, most natural act. Well, we can hope.