Weird Weather: The Mystery of the 'Oakville Blobs'

Storms seemed to bring small blobs of a strange substance to Oakville, Washington, in 1994.
Storms seemed to bring small blobs of a strange substance to Oakville, Washington, in 1994. / Rising*From*Ashes, Wikimedia Commons // CC by 4.0; Blob by Justin Dodd. Photo has been cropped and cartoon blob added.

In August 1994, Oakville, Washington, police officer David Lacey was driving his cruiser on patrol when he noticed it had begun to rain. This wasn’t unusual in Oakville, where waterdrops could splatter against windshields 275 days out of the year.

But something about this storm seemed different. When Lacey turned his wipers on, he noticed the rain wasn’t being swept aside. It seemed to smear, as though someone had taken petroleum jelly and smudged it across the car.

“Gee, this isn’t right,” Lacey told a friend who was riding with him. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere. Where did this come from?”

When they pulled over at a gas station, Lacey donned gloves and felt the substance, which was goopy and viscous. Somehow, the skies over Oakville had opened and let loose a baffling mystery.

Officer Lacey was perplexed, but not concerned. Not until he began to feel seriously ill.

The Blob(s)

Were it not for the blobs, Oakville may have remained largely out of mind for most. Once a logging town, Oakville—named after Washington’s lone native oak tree—was incorporated in 1905 and is currently home to roughly 700 residents. Life moves a little more slowly here, with one foot in the past. A building thought to be the last bank robbed on horseback still stands; locals come out in droves for the rodeo shows.

Then, on August 7, 1994, the strange rain started. Officer Lacey was among the first to see it, but so did others. One woman stepped outside to find the translucent blobs dotting the ground; each, she later recalled, was about the half the size of a grain of rice. Most estimates put the frequency of the “rain” events at six over a three-week period.

“The substance was very mushy, almost like if you had Jell-O in your hand,” Lacey told Unsolved Mysteries when the program profiled the event in 1996. “You know, you could pretty much squish it through your fingers. We knew it wasn’t something we would normally see, because we had never experienced it before. We had some bells go off in our heads that said that basically, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t normal.’”

Then the wave of illness began.

Lacey said he became very ill with fatigue and nausea. Resident Beverly Roberts told The Chronicle that she grew curious enough about the goo to take some home for a closer look. Within a day, she said, she was struck by weird symptoms, including vertigo, and had to seek medical care. Others reported upper respiratory infections and inner-ear infections at roughly the same time the blobs appeared.

“Everybody in town came down with the flu,” Roberts told Unsolved Mysteries.

Resident Sunny Barclift told The Lewiston Tribune in 1994 that she had first noticed the blobs dotting a black asphalt roof on her family’s 29-acre farm. A short time later, her mother, Dotty Hearn, sought treatment for dizziness and nausea; Sunny reported fatigue after touching it.

What appeared harmful to humans was allegedly fatal to animals. Roberts said that she knew of 12 animals that had died since the blobs appeared. When she collected some for a sample, she noted a dead frog and raven just a few feet away. On the farm, Dotty and Sunny’s kitten collapsed and died.

Under a Microscope

When Hearn complained of symptoms, her physician, Dr. David Little, believed they were the result of an inner-ear problem unrelated to exposure to the substance. Still, he agreed to have the goo tested at the hospital, where technicians found human white blood cells.

Samples of the goo were also collected by the Washington State Department of Health and the Department of Ecology. The Department of Health found two bacteria, Pseudomonas fluorescens and Enterobacter cloacae. Whether the bacteria could cause illness in people was debated, though E. cloacae, which is found in nature, can potentially be a pathogen. Before further studies could be undertaken, health department microbiologist Mike McDowell said the samples disappeared from his lab.

Mike Osweiler of the Department of Ecology told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the samples contained “a number of cells of various sizes” and that they came from a once-living creature. In contrast to the hospital's findings, however, Osweiler added that the samples hadn’t been observed to have human white blood cells because the cells present had no nuclei, which are found in human cells.

Because the lab testing was largely inconclusive, other theories cropped up. One thought was that jellyfish had somehow been swept up, destroyed, and then scattered, either through some kind of natural event or something man-made. Another posited that the Air Force, which was said to be performing bombing practice runs over the Pacific, had perhaps blown jellyfish clear out of the water and over Oakville. Or worse, that they were conducting biological weapons testing. While the Air Force confirmed bombing practice by the 354th Fighter Squadron, it had taken place 40 to 50 miles away.

Dr. Little theorized that the blobs were discharged waste from a plane. That, he said, would explain both the white blood cells and the fact that it sickened and killed animals, since planes use antifreeze in their lavatory systems. But the Federal Aviation Administration shot down any idea it could have come from aircraft, noting that the chemicals used would turn any waste blue.

The most credulous explanation is that the blobs were actually “star jelly,” a slang term for a phenomenon in which things like slime molds appear gooey. It can also refer to frog spawn vomited up on land by overindulging magpies. It’s been described as far back at the 14th century, when it was thought to be the residue from meteor showers.

This wouldn’t account for the blobs falling from the sky, though it’s unclear precisely how many people reported seeing the drops fall or whether they simply accompanied rain. It’s entirely possible a natural occurrence like “star jelly” was accompanied by a handful of illnesses and someone established correlation without any causation.

It’s also difficult to corroborate the most sensational testimonies: that the goo fell from the sky and that samples had disappeared. Officer Lacey and Mike McDowell of the Department of Health have rarely spoken about the blobs beyond their appearances on Unsolved Mysteries.

There has never been a concrete answer for the blobs or their origin, though the event hasn’t reoccurred. Nor is Oakville the only place to experience unusual precipitation. In 1876, meat appeared to descend from the sky in Olympian Springs, Kentucky, possibly the result of vultures flying overhead; frogs have been known to fall after being picked up by a storm.

The only other clue came courtesy of Jim and Kathy Belanger, who reported seeing dead crabs along the Washington coast around the time the blobs were reported. A clear gel was nearby. Both Kathy and her dog touched the goo, and both became ill the following day.

“It's weird,” Kathy said.