A plunging meteor exploded with a blinding flash above central Russia yesterday, sowing panic as the hurtling space debris set off a shock wave that smashed windows and hurt almost 500 people.
The extraordinary event brought morning traffic to a sudden halt in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk as shocked drivers stopped to watch the falling meteor partially burning up in the lower atmosphere, lighting up the sky.
The Russian Emergencies Ministry said 474 people were wounded, 14 of them seriously, by the damage caused mainly to windows being shattered by the shock wave in Chelyabinsk and other towns in the Urals.
Mobile communications were temporarily cut.
“At 09:20 an object was observed above Chelyabinsk which flew by at great speed and left a trail behind. Within two minutes there were two bangs,” regional emergencies official Yuri Burenko said in a statement. “The shock wave broke glass in Chelyabinsk and a number of other towns in the region.”
The office of the local governor said in a statement that a meteorite had fallen into a lake outside the town of Chebakul in the Chelyabinsk region. This was not confirmed by federal officials, who insisted any fragments were yet to be found.
There were no reports that any locals had been hurt directly by a falling piece of meteorite.
The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said it had sent soldiers “to the sites of impact,” without giving further details.
Schools were closed for the day and theater shows canceled across the region after the shock wave blew out windows amid temperatures as low as minus-18°C. The local postal service said several of its buildings had been damaged, while the stadium of Chelyabinsk’s Traktor ice hockey side was also affected, forcing the cancellation of a match.
State television showed a part of the roof and a wall shorn off a brick zinc factory in Chelyabinsk. Other images showed people with bloodied faces and at least one child’s back covered with blood.
The meteor “was quite a large object with a mass of several dozen tonnes,” estimated Russian astronomer Sergei Smirnov of the Pulkovo observatory in an interview with the Rossia 24 channel.
NASA estimates that a smallish asteroid flies close to Earth every 40 years, but only hits our planet once every 1,200 years.
The Chelyabinsk meteor explosion appears to be one of the most stunning cosmic events above Russia since the 1908 Tunguska Event when a massive blast most scientists blame on an asteroid or a comet impact ripped through Siberia.
With the event already becoming a leading trend on Twitter, locals posted amateur footage on YouTube showing men swearing in surprise and fright, and others grinding their cars to a halt.
“First I thought it was a plane falling, but there was no sound from the engine ... after a moment a powerful explosion went off,” witness Denis Laskov said. “In a lot of the houses on our street the windows were blown out.”
The Chelyabinsk region is Russia’s industrial heartland, filled with factories and other facilities that include a nuclear power plant and the massive Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment center.
A spokesman for Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy state corporation, said that its operations remained unaffected.
“All Rosatom enterprises located in the Urals region — including the Mayak complex — are working as normal,” a Rosatom spokesman said.