More than 1,000 injured as meteor explosion rattles Russian city

Posted Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Huge asteroid misses Earth

A 150-foot asteroid hurtled through Earth's back yard Friday, coming within an incredible 17,150 miles and making the closest known flyby for a rock of its size. 14A

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MOSCOW -- With a blinding flash and a booming shock wave, a meteor blazed across the western Siberian sky Friday and exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs, injuring more than 1,000 people as it blasted out windows and spread panic in a city of 1 million.

While NASA estimated that the meteor was only about the size of a bus and weighed an estimated 7,000 tons, the fireball it produced was dramatic. Video shot by startled residents of the city of Chelyabinsk showed its streaming contrails as it arced toward the horizon just after sunrise.

The largest recorded meteor strike in more than a century occurred hours before a 150-foot asteroid passed within about 17,000 miles of Earth. The European Space Agency said there was no connection between the asteroid and the Russian meteor -- just cosmic coincidence.

The meteor above western Siberia entered the Earth's atmosphere about 9:20 a.m. local time (9:20 p.m. Thursday in Texas) at a hypersonic speed of at least 33,000 mph and shattered into pieces about 18 to 32 miles high, the Russian Academy of Sciences said.

"There was panic. People had no idea what was happening," said Sergey Hametov of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains.

"We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud, thundering sound," he said.

The shock wave blew in an estimated 1 million square feet of glass, according to city officials, who said 3,000 buildings in Chelyabinsk were damaged. At a zinc factory, part of the roof collapsed. The Interior Ministry said about 1,100 people sought medical care after the shock wave and 48 were hospitalized. Most of the injuries were caused by flying glass.

Scientists estimated the meteor unleashed a force 20 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, although the space rock exploded at a much higher altitude. Amy Mainzer, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the atmosphere acted as a shield.

The shock wave may have shattered windows, but "the atmosphere absorbed the vast majority of that energy," she said.

Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Vladimir Purgin said many of the injured were cut as they flocked to windows to see what caused the intense flash of light.

There was no immediate word of any deaths or anyone struck by space fragments.

Some meteorite fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Chebarkul, the regional Interior Ministry office said. The crash left a 26-foot crater in the ice.

Lessons had just started at Chelyabinsk schools when the meteor exploded, and officials said 258 children were among those injured. Yekaterina Melikhova, a high school student whose nose was bloody and whose upper lip was covered with a bandage, said she was in her geography class when a bright light flashed outside.

"After the flash, nothing happened for about three minutes. Then we rushed outdoors. ... The door was made of glass, a shock wave made it hit us," she said.

Russian television ran video of athletes at a city sports arena who were showered by shards of glass from huge windows. Some were bleeding.

Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are traveling so much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries on the scale reported Friday, however, are extraordinarily rare.

"I went to see what that flash in the sky was about," recalled resident Marat Lobkovsky. "And then the window glass shattered, bouncing back on me. My beard was cut open, but not deep. They patched me up. It's OK now."

Another resident, Valya Kazakov, said some elderly women in his neighborhood started crying out that the world was ending.

The many broken windows exposed residents to the bitter cold as temperatures in the city were expected to plummet to minus 4 overnight. The regional governor put out a call for any workers who knew how to repair windows.

Russian-language hashtags for the meteorite quickly shot up into Twitter's top trends.

"Jeez, I just woke up because my bed started shaking! The whole house is moving!" tweeted Alisa Malkova.

Social media was flooded with video from the dashboard cameras Russians mount in their cars in case of pressure from corrupt traffic police or a dispute after an accident.

The dramatic event prompted an array of reactions from prominent Russians. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at an economic forum in Krasnoyarsk, said the meteor could be a symbol for the forum, showing that "not only the economy is vulnerable, but the whole planet."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist leader noted for his vehement statements, blamed the Americans.

"It's not meteors falling. It's the test of a new weapon by the Americans," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

Meteoroids are small pieces of space debris -- usually parts of comets or asteroids -- that are on a collision course with the Earth. They become meteors when they enter the Earth's atmosphere. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive the frictional heating and strike the surface of the Earth they are called meteorites.

NASA said the Russian fireball was the largest reported since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia, and flattened an estimated 80 million trees.

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