YEKATERINBURG/CHELYABINSK — A meteor shot across the sky in central Russia early on Friday and sent fireballs crashing to Earth, smashing windows, setting off car alarms and injuring more than 1,000 people.
Residents heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt a shockwave as they went to work in Chelyabinsk, according to a Reuters news agency correspondent in the industrial city 1,500km east of Moscow.
The meteor then raced across the horizon, leaving a long trail of white smoke in its wake that could be seen as far as 200km away in Yekaterinburg. Car alarms went off, windows shattered and cellphones worked only intermittently.
Fragments of the meteor fell in a thinly populated area of the Chelyabinsk region, the Emergency Ministry said in a statement.
“I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it was day,” said Viktor Prokofiev, a 36-year-old resident of Yekaterinburg in the Urals Mountains. “I felt like I was blinded by headlights.”
No deaths were reported but the Emergencies Ministry said 20,000 rescue and clean-up workers were sent to the region after President Vladimir Putin told Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to ease the disruption and help the victims.
The Interior Ministry said about 1,200 people had been injured, at least 200 of them children, and most from shards of glass.
A local ministry official said the meteor shower may have been connected with an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool that was due to pass Earth at a distance of 27,520km, but this could not be confirmed.
Windows were shattered on Chelyabinsk’s central Lenin Street and some of the frames of shop fronts buckled.
A loud noise, resembling an explosion, rang out at about 9.20am local time (5.20am GMT). The shockwave could be felt in apartment buildings in the industrial city’s centre.
“I was standing at a bus stop, seeing off my girlfriend,” said Andrei, a local resident who did not give his second name. “Then there was a flash, and I saw a trail of smoke across the sky and felt a shockwave that smashed windows.”
A wall and roof were damaged at the nearby Chelyabinsk zinc plant but there was no environmental threat, a plant spokeswoman said.
Such incidents are rare in Russia. A meteor is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000m² in Siberia in 1908, smashing windows as far as 200km from the point of impact.
The Emergencies Ministry described Friday’s events as a “meteor shower in the form of fireballs” and said background radiation levels were normal. It urged residents not to panic.
Chelyabinsk city authorities urged people to stay indoors unless they needed to pick up their children from schools and kindergartens. They said a blast had been heard at an altitude of 10,000m, apparently signalling it occurred when the meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere.
US space agency Nasa has said an asteroid known as 2012 DA14, about 46m in diameter, would have an encounter with Earth closer than any asteroid since scientists began routinely monitoring them about 15 years ago.
Television, weather and communications satellites fly about 800km higher. The moon is 14 times farther away.
Reuters and Sapa-AP