If you ever find yourself driving down Highway 80 in central Pennsylvania, you might discover something… unsettling. Deep in the heart of Maccombe County, just past the exit for a one-horse town called Seward’s Mill, the road terminates unexpectedly in a dead end. Beyond it, the asphalt is cracked and choked with weeds; the guardrails continue off into the wilderness for a few hundred feet before becoming twisted into unrecognizability. The only indication that a functioning road was ever there is a sign that says:
“DANGER – NO TRESPASSING”
With a smaller sign beneath it:
“DETOUR RIGHT – 50 FT”
To the right of the highway there is, in fact, a detour: a hastily-built gravel road that snakes through the woods. Driving onto this road is like entering a dark forest from a fairy tale — the pines and birch are thick, muffling light and sound. There are no gas stations, rest stops; any signs of civilization at all. After about twenty minutes, the road abruptly leaves the woods and goes from gravel to asphalt again, rejoining the highway without ceremony a couple of miles from where it left it. You might consider it irritating, or odd, but not terribly disquieting: after all, there are a number of possible explanations for such a thing. The roadway may be in need of repair, or an endangered animal species could have been discovered in these woods. The truth, however, is that you have just skirted the edge of one of the most disturbing, unspoken of mysteries in American history.
You’ve just taken a detour around the remains of Chelsea, PA.
On March 3rd, 1998, a wireman driving into Chelsea to perform some routine maintenance on power lines made a surprising discovery: the town appeared to be completely deserted. All 1,152 residents of the town had vanished. Driving through the streets, he saw no signs of violence or disaster. The town looked as it always did, but completely devoid of people. He contacted the police, who (after an initial period of disbelief) arrived to find the town exactly as the wireman described. Searching for any sign of citizens they made a number of discoveries, each more baffling than the last. Cars were left idling in driveways; restaurants had plates of food quietly going stale at tables, half-eaten. The town’s one movie theater had been left running and showed the same feature over and over again on a loop to an absent audience. On one sidewalk, they found the remains of a street hockey game lying untouched, helmets and sticks left in a disorganized pile. As the search continued, dozens of officers appeared on scene and performed a perimeter sweep of the town. They found nothing. No bodies, no footprints, no sign of a mass exodus from the town — it was as if every single resident of Chelsea simply winked out of existence
At first, the incident was considered a missing persons case. The first tentative reports out of the Maccombe County Sheriff’s Office downplayed the severity of the disappearances, so as to not to cause panic. But as days passed and news of the incident spread, local newspapers speculated feverishly about what could have caused the residents of Chelsea to suddenly disappear. Maybe a poisonous gas had leached out of the ground and asphyxiated the town — but where were the bodies? Or were the citizens all taken hostage by terrorists — but then, what power on Earth could take eleven hundred people prisoner all at once? Every theory was more fantastic than the last.
Getting desperate, police cast a wider net and turned to more indirect methods of investigation, interviewing the friends and family of every resident of Chelsea they could identify. Few were helpful; most had had no direct contact with the town for weeks – however, the hundreds of interviews began to reveal a pattern. No one had spoken to their loved ones or acquaintances in Chelsea after 9:30 the night before the disappearance. Soon after, America Online provided the Sheriff’s Office with Maccombe’s records for the night of March 2nd and an even more startling discovery was made: of the 227 Chelsea residents logged in that night, every one disconnected from the Internet at exactly 9:57 PM.
However, after this discovery the trail went cold, and remained so for two more days. Despite the pleas of the victims’ families and the increasing pressure from public institutions, the police were unable to come up with an explanation more coherent than the conspiracy theories traded on message boards and in coffeeshops and diners. The radius of the search expanded across the county without success. Even the most hopeful observers were becoming frustrated.
The Maccombe County police might never have understood what happened in Chelsea that night, if not for Jacob Marksfelt.
Jacob Marksfelt was a 911 dispatcher, one of twelve who staffed the Tri-County area from a two-story office building in Bellefonte. On the morning of March 4th, while the wireman was driving into Chelsea to make his fateful discovery, Marksfelt’s landlady discovered him swinging from the overhang of his back porch, dead. He had hung himself with a length of extension cord. There was no suicide note. The news about Marksfelt was overshadowed by the story coming out of Chelsea, and ended up as a footnote in the evening paper – which devoted its entire first three pages to the disappearance. With the increased manpower going to the investigation and the press-ganging of the remaining dispatchers into a makeshift tip line, it was no surprise that it took three days for anyone to connect the dots between Marksfelt’s suicide and the disappearances in Chelsea, or to get around to looking over the recordings from the night of his final shift. A supervisor requested a printout of Marksfelt’s calls, which came sputtering from a copier while deputies looked on eagerly.
Jacob Marksfelt’s final call came from Chelsea, PA. At 9:59 PM.
Transcript of 911 Call – Operator ID#GZN630; 2159; Chelsea PA, between operator J. Marksfelt and an unknown female (later identified as Karen Gibbs), during the exchange, Karen sounds out of breath and the sounds of running and wind can be heard. Further notations are added to the record as necessary.
JM: 911 Dispatch, what’s your emergency?
Unknown Female: HELP! HELP! Send the police!
JM: Hello, ma’am? Ma’am, I need you to calm down and explain-
Unknown Female: Jesus Christ, they’re so fast! AAAH! (the sound of gunfire can be heard)
JM: Ma’am? I can hear gunshots — are you injured? Where are you, we can have an ambulance-
Unknown Female: Police! Send the police, oh my god oh my god oh my god-
JM: Ma’am, I know whatever is going on there is serious, but I need you to calm down and give me your location-
Unknown Female: I’m-, I’m running! I’m on Main Street and I’m just running…uh, I think I’m running south…
JM: That’s Main Street in Chelsea?
Unknown Female: Chelsea, yeah. Oh God, there’s blood in the street!
JM: Ma’am, I’m dispatching units to your location right now. What is your name?
Unknown Female: I…I’m Karen.
JM: Karen, we’re going to get you through this. What’s going on out there?
Unknown Female: There’s, there’s blood everywhere! I’m trying to get off the streets, get to the movie theater and take cover. I saw them, I saw them take Jeff, oh god oh GOD-
JM: Ma’am, I need you to give me details of the situation. I understand there are gunshots and at least one injury-
Unknown Female: They’re all dead. They’re all dead.
JM: Who is dead, ma’am?
Unknown Female: We ran but they were so fast, I don’t know how anything can move like that-
JM: Ma’am, I need you to calm down. Describe these people for me.
Unknown Female: They aren’t PEOPLE! They don’t have faces, they move so fast… They’ve got legs like spiders and they crawl all over everything-
JM: Ma’am, have you taken any illegal substances tonight?
Unknown Female: *laughs* No, just…just bring the police! Please.
JM: Police are on their way, ma’am.
Unknown Female: I’m at the theater…one second…
(the sound of crashing glass is audible)
Unknown Female: I broke in. Used a brick. I’m going to hide in the bathroom. Maybe they won’t see me-
(the sound of gunfire increases sharply; distant screaming is heard)
JM: Ma’am? Ma’am, what was that? Are you alright?
Unknown Female: Oh God.
Unknown Female: Oh god oh shit oh fuck fuck fuck THEY’RE COMING THIS WAY
JM: Ma’am, try to remain calm-
Unknown Female: Where are the police!? Oh God-
(several crashing sounds occur simultaneously)
JM: Remain quiet and seek shelter-
Unknown Female: NO, NO PLEASE DON’T HURT ME! MOMMA! MOMMA PLEASE AHHHHHH- *static*
JM: Ma’am? MA’AM!? Karen? Police are on their way. Are you there?
(At this point, three minutes and forty-two seconds elapse without dialog. The sounds of dragging and scraping can be heard, along with distant screams and gunshots. At approximately two minutes and fifty-two seconds, the sound of wind picks up and begins to increase until it becomes a substantial howl – the change in ambient noise indicates the phone is accelerating).
JM: Ma’am? Is that you?
Unknown Female: CAN YOU SEE ME?
JM: What? Is that you, Karen?
Unknown Female: KAREN IS DEAD.
Unknown Female: I HAVE ASCENDED.
Unknown Female: THESE VESSELS SHALL BE RETURNED TO YOU IN SEVEN DAYS. BY THIS SIGN YOU SHALL MARK THESE WORDS.
(Unknown Female continues to speak, but beyond this point the sound of wind becomes too loud for individual words to be audible on tape. After approximately eight minutes and fifteen seconds, several other voices can be heard; these remain inaudible until the tape abruptly ends at 10:27 PM. Records show no issuing of police or medical units from Jacob Marksfelt’s terminal on the evening of March 2nd. Additionally, forensic units found no signs of damage to the Chelsea Theater).
On March 10th, 1998, seven days after the disaster at Chelsea, the bodies of all 1,152 missing persons were discovered scattered through the city with injuries consistent from a height of approximately 3,500 feet. Remains showed injuries consistent with a fall from extreme heights. Additionally, the bodies sustained third-degree burns across inconsistent regions of their anatomy – no two injuries were found to match except for one common to every subject: in every case, their brain had been removed.
The Maccombe County Sheriff’s Office barricaded the town three days later. None of the victims of what later came to be known as the “Chelsea Incident” have ever had their remains buried or examined by the public.
The disappearances are still officially unsolved.