A major Russian city in Siberia had a miraculous escape on Friday when a meteor streaked above it, shattering windows, shaking the ground and injuring hundreds of people.
Amateur videos taken in and near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains captured an incredibly bright fireball speeding across the sky shortly after 9 a.m. local time, leaving a thick white smoke trail, followed by several powerful blasts.
Eyewitnesses said the fireball was brighter than the Sun, hurting vision and causing headaches.
The Russian Academy of Sciences estimated that a 10-tonne meteor entered the atmosphere over Siberia at a speed of 15-20 km a second and exploded into fragments at a height of about 50 km above the Earth.
The fragments hit several regions of Siberia and Kazakhstan, with Chelyabinsk, a city with a population of 1.12 million people about 1500 km east of Moscow, suffering largest damage. Meteor shock waves blew out windows in hundreds of multi-storeyed apartments, hospitals, schools and sports facilities and damaged several industrial plants in the city.
No fatalities have been reported so far, but the number of injured people reached 1,000 by Friday evening, including 200 children, in Chelyabinsk alone. Most injuries were caused by flying glass. The authorities declared a state of emergency in Chelyabinsk region and deployed 20,000 emergency response personnel to ascertain the damage and help the injured people. Municipal services struggled to replace 100,000 square metres of smashed windows as temperatures in Siberia are well below zero degree Celsius.
Fortunately for Chelyabinsk, the fragments of the meteor missed it and crashed in a thinly populated area about 200 km away. The military found three meteor impact sites, including a six-metre crater near Lake Chebarkul and a large hole in the ice on the lake.
Chelyabinsk region has several nuclear and chemical industry facilities, including the Mayak fuel reprocessing factory and a huge nuclear waste storage. Emergency officials said the facilities were safe and background radiation levels remained low. Mayak was the site of a nuclear catastrophe in the 1950s, when a blast in a liquid waste tank caused massive radioactive contamination in the region.
Astronomers did not rule out that the meteor was part of the 2012 DA14 asteroid, which was due to pass close by the Earth later on Friday.