Almost 500 people have been injured after a huge meteorite flared spectacularly in the skies above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. It broke windows, damaged buildings and caused panic as mobile networks overloaded.
Videos from the scene at 9:23am local time showed objects plunging through the clear morning sky and erupting into enormous fireballs to the sound of multiple explosions. Long vapour trails were seen hundreds of miles away.
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Galina Zaglumyonova, who lives in Chelyabinsk, a city of over a million people to the south of the Ural mountains.
“There was a big explosion and then a series of little explosions … our first thought was that it was a plane crash,” she said. The alarms of all the cars on the street went off after the loud bangs.
The Russian Academy of Sciences estimated that the meteorite weighed about 10 tons and entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 54,000 kph (33,000 mph), shattering about 30-50km (18-32 miles) above ground.
Russian officials said that they had already found where the main chunk of the meteorite had fallen, on the outskirts the city.
At the last count, 474 people had been injured with over 20 hospitalised, according to Russia‘s emergency situations ministry. The figure rose throughout the morning and is expected to continue to rise. Many of those who suffered were hit by flying glass, but there were no reports of any deaths or life-threatening injuries.
Zaglumyonova told the Guardian that the windows of her balcony were shattered by the explosion, and the clay pots containing plants on her windowsill were broken.
Mobile networks were down for about two hours after the meteorite plunged to Earth as people attempted to call each other and find out what had happened, she added.
The Chelyabinsk authorities said that radiation levels in the region, which has several nuclear power stations, were normal and that evacuations were not underway. But schools and universities were closed, staff sent home early, and heavy damage reported at one zinc factory that suffered broken windows and collapsed walls.
Rumours swirled in the hours after the incident. The meteorite may have been engaged by local air defence units and blown apart at an altitude of 20km (12.4 miles), according to reports on state-owned TV channel Russia Today. There was no official confirmation of any military action.
The ultranationalist leader of Russia’s Liberal Democrat party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said that it was not a meteorite shower, but “a test of new American weapons,” Interfax reported.
Both the president, Vladimir Putin, and the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, were informed about the incident.
“I hope the consequences will not be serious,” Medvedev said at an economic forum in Siberia, Interfax reported. “It’s proof that not only are economies vulnerable, but the whole planet.”
The deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former ambassador to Nato, called for an international initiative to create a warning system for “objects of an alien origin”.
Neither the United States nor Russia has the capability to bring down such objects, he added.