MOSCOW, Russia (5th UPDATE) – A plunging meteor exploded with a blinding flash above central Russia on Friday, sowing panic as the hurtling space debris set off a shockwave that smashed windows and hurt around 950 people.
Experts insisted the meteor’s fiery entry into the atmosphere was not linked to the asteroid 2012 DA 14, which later passed about 17,200 miles (27,700 kilometres) above the Earth without incident in an unusually close approach.
But 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 and light up the sky.
The fall of such a large meteor estimated as weighing dozens of tonnes was extremely rare, while the number of casualties as a consequence of its burning up around a heavily-inhabited area was unprecedented.
Chelyabinsk regional governor Mikhail Yurevich, quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency, said 950 people were injured, with two-thirds of the injuries light wounds from glass shards and other materials blown out by the shockwave.
Windows were blown out by the shockwave across the city’s region with the ministry saying almost 300 buildings were damaged including schools, hospitals, a zinc factory and even an ice hockey stadium.
“At 9:20 am (0320 GMT), 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 office of the local governor said that a meteorite had fallen into a lake outside the town of Chebarkul in the Chelyabinsk region and television images pointed to a six-metre (20-foot) hole in the frozen lake’s ice.
However it has yet to be finally confirmed if meteorite fragments made contact with the Earth and there were no reports that any locals had been hurt directly by a falling piece of meteorite.
Schools were closed for the day and theatre shows cancelled across the region after the shock wave blew out windows amid temperatures as low as minus 18 degrees Celsius (zero degrees Fahrenheit).
“Thank God that nothing fell onto inhabited areas,” President Vladimir Putin said in a meeting with Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov, ordering him to look into how to warn citizens about such events.
‘A large object weighing tons’
The meteor “was quite a large object with a mass of several dozen tons,” estimated Russian astronomer Sergei Smirnov of the Pulkovo observatory in an interview with the Rossia 24 channel.
NASA estimates that a smallish asteroid such as the 2012 DA 14 flies close to Earth every 40 years but only hits our planet once every 1,200 years.
But the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion appears to be one of the most stunning consmic 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,” said witness Denis Laskov.
“In a lot of the houses on our street the windows were blown out,” he told state television.
The Chelyabinsk region is Russia’s industrial heartland, filled with smoke-chugging factories and other huge facilities that include a nuclear power plant and the massive Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment centre.
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,” an Rosatom spokesman told Interfax.
The emergencies ministry said radiation levels in the region also did not change and that 20,000 rescue workers had been dispatched to help the injured and locate those requiring help.
The Guardian earlier reported that Interior Minister spokesman Vadim Kolesnikov said 102 people called for medical help after they were injured from broken glass from the explosions.
Koselnikov also added that 600 sq. meters (6,000 sq. ft.) of a roof at a zinc factory collapsed.
According to the Associated Press, amateur video showed on Russian television showed an object speeding across the sky about 9:20 a.m. local time (11:20am Philippine time).