For a brief moment Thursday, it seemed as though the sky was falling in downtown Lula.
Investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday morning visited Welch's Tire Shop, a garage on Main Street, to look into a report of a basketball-sized chunk of ice that plunged from a cloudless sky and ripped through a tin roof, scattering into baseball-sized fragments.
The ice is believed to have fallen from one of the many passenger jetliners that fly overhead along a route to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"It could have very well killed anybody that had been standing there," garage owner Gordon Welch said.
Welch was about five feet away from the point of impact in the corner of the garage, and a customer stood some two feet away near a truck that was on a hydraulic lift just outside. The force of the impact shook the building, he said.
"There was stuff flying everywhere," Welch said. "I've never seen something fall from the sky with that much force."
People working at a nearby transmission shop and used car lot reported hearing "a big whistling and roaring sound coming through the air," just before the impact, which occurred shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday, said Welch's fiancee, Melissa Whitfield.
"When it hit, they actually thought something had exploded," she said.
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA, confirmed the agency was looking into the incident. Bergen said while ice has on occasion fallen from high-altitude flights, it is regarded as a "very, very rare" occurrence. Generally the reports involve "blue ice," which results from a malfunction in a plane's lavatory system, Bergen said.
But Bergen said because the ice involved in Thursday's incident was white, speculation was that it could have been ice that formed on the outside rear of a plane at high altitudes and fell off as the flight descended.
The FAA will pinpoint the location of the incident and look at flight plan routes from Thursday to determine what planes flew over, she said.
"We are going to make every effort to track this down to an aircraft to see if there were any mechanical issues that would cause this to occur," Bergen said.
Federal investigators on Friday took photographs of the ice fragments that Welch kept preserved in a freezer and photographed the area of impact, Whitfield said.
Bergen said FAA officials investigated a case of a large piece of white ice falling from the sky and crushing a car in 2007 in Tampa, Fla. The cause was narrowed down to ice that was stuck in a jet's wheel well or a malfunctioning heater tube that allowed ice to form on the back of the plane, then fall off as it melted at lower altitudes. The plane from which the ice fell was never identified.
Bergen said the FAA would "look into this to the extent we can, but there's no guarantee" an exact cause would be determined.
Asked if he thought officials would be able to pinpoint the source of the ice, Welch said, "I doubt it."
Said Whitfield, "Things like this are not normal. The sky doesn't fall too often in Lula."