Nearly 1000 people were injured and 3,000 buildings damaged after a 10-ton meteor that entered the earth’s atmosphere at 33,000mph ripped across the sky above Russia’s Ural Mountains yesterday morning.
Many of those wounded in the city of Chelyabinsk, 900 miles east of Moscow, were hit by broken glass when the shockwave smashed thousands of windows. At least 31 people were reported to be seriously injured and close to 200 children were among those hurt. Army units were scrambled to locate the debris and found two fragments of the meteor 50 miles to the west on the shore of a lake near Chebarkul, one of which had left a crater 6 metres wide. A third segment struck near Zlatoust, about 50 miles to the north-west.
Witnesses described a scenes of panic as pedestrians were thrown to the ground when the blast struck at 9.22am local time. A student from School No 461 in Chelyabinsk, where several pupils were injured, said: “Everything went very bright. There was a very loud sound like the roar of an aeroplane, then an explosion and glass rained down.”
Another resident described seeing a “terrible burst of scarlet and orange light. My eyes still hurt... the shock wave knock the glass out of the neighbouring houses. I turned out the light, sat the children on the sofa and waited…my God...I thought war had started.”
Eyewitness reports were confirmed by video footage from drivers’ dashboard cameras – a common precaution used by many drivers against corrupt traffic police – which showed the blazing trail in the sky.
Schools were closed and 20,000 emergency personnel were deployed to the region yesterday as a massive clean-up operation got underway. While no deaths were reported, the number of injured rapidly climbed and by early evening Chelyabinsk’s health department confirmed 985 people had sought treatment. Last night those who were able were attempting to patch up their windows against the bitter cold. The daytime temperature was minus 9C and the authorities were fearful of fatalities, especially as it was not apparent whether the blast had damaged the city’s centralised heating system which pipes hot water from power stations to homes.
Valery Shuvalov, a scientist at Russia’s Institute of Geosphere Dynamics, said: “The meteor was destroyed in the atmosphere and the cloud of fragments flew off, creating a shock wave...Much of the material has evaporated, the remaining pieces fell to earth.”
“The blasts, of which there were three, were preceded by a bright flash with a temperature I would estimate at more than 2,500 degrees centigrade,” Sergei Zakharov, the head of the regional section of the Russian Geographic Society, said.
Despite scientists confirming the incident as a meteor strike, the Russian Army was put on high alert as nationalist politicians suggested a shadowy foreign power could have been at work. Vladimir Zhirinkovsky, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, lost no time in accusing the Americans of “testing a new weapon” against Russia.
The Chelyabinsk region is home to key parts of Russia’s civilian and military nuclear industry including Mayak, a former plutonium factory now used as a waste processing facility that saw one of the world’s worst ever nuclear accidents in 1957.
Rosatom, the national nuclear energy monopoly, said that its facilities in the region were unaffected by the blast and “working normally,” while Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry said radiation was at “normal levels” after the incident.
The Emergency Situations ministry has ruled out any danger of radioactive pollution, but warned people not to approach or touch pieces of meteor in case there is “toxic contamination.”
That hasn’t stopped several enterprising locals for seeking to capitalize on the region’s new found fame, however. But Friday afternoon at least two people were offering what they claimed were genuine “Chelyabinsk meteor” fragments on the jewelry section of a Russian online trading site.
“Alexei” who claimed to be from Magnitogorsk in the region’s south, said he wanted 500 rubles (about £10) for a two centimeter fragment that he “had no use for.” “It’s a little scratched, but otherwise in excellent condition,” he wrote.