After Assault From the Heavens, Russians Search for Clues and Count Blessings
By Andrew E. Kramer, NY Times, February 16, 2013
CHEBARKUL, Russia—After a brilliant flash illuminated the sky on Friday morning like a second sun, Alyona V. Borchininova and several others in this run-down little town in the Siberian wilderness wandered outside, confused and curious.
They followed the light’s path to the town’s lakefront, where they trudged for about a mile over the open ice until they came to a startling sight: a perfectly round hole, about 20 feet in diameter, its rim glossy with fresh ice that had crusted on top of the snow.
"It was eerie," Ms. Borchininova, a barmaid, said Saturday. "So we stood there. And then somebody joked, ‘Now the green men will crawl out and say hello.’"
Russians are still coming to terms with what NASA scientists say was a 7,000-ton chunk of space rock that hurtled out of the sky at 40,000 miles an hour, exploding over the Ural Mountains, spraying debris for miles around and, amazingly, killing no one.
As the Russian government pursued the scientific mysteries of the exploding meteor, sending divers through the hole and into the inky waters of Lake Chebarkul on Saturday, residents reacted with a kind of giddy relief and humor over their luck at having survived a cosmic near miss.
NASA estimates that when the meteor entered the atmosphere over Alaska, it weighed 7,000 to 10,000 tons and was at least 50 feet in diameter, a size that strikes the Earth about once every hundred years, and that it exploded with the force of 500 kilotons of TNT.
The shock wave injured hundreds of people about 54 miles away in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, most from broken glass; collapsed a wall in a zinc factory; set off car alarms; and sent dishes flying in thousands of apartments. Broken windows exposed people and pipes to the Siberian winter; many residents focused Saturday on boarding windows and draining pipes to preserve heating systems.
A fourth-grade teacher in Chelyabinsk, Yulia Karbysheva, was being hailed as a hero for saving 44 children from glass cuts by ordering them to hide under their desks when she saw the flash. Having no idea what it was, she executed a duck-and-cover drill from the cold war era, with salutary results.
Ms. Karbysheva, who remained standing, was seriously lacerated when glass severed a tendon in one of her arms, Interfax reported; not one of her students suffered a cut.
In the Church of the Transfiguration in Chebarkul, on a hill overlooking the lake, Deacon Sergiy was in mid-service on Friday, having just closed the doors in a wall of icons symbolizing the entombment of Jesus in the holy sepulcher and the imminence of the Resurrection. Just then, a bright light spilled in through every window.
"It was like a new sun was born," he said. "This all gives us reason to think. Is the purpose of our life just to raise a family and die, or is it to live eternally? It was a reason for people on earth to look up, to look up at God."
He called the flash more significant than earlier signs he had noticed, like the time a white dove alighted on the church belfry, or when a cloud appeared above the church in the form of a cross.
Out on the lake, an ice fisherman, who gave his name only as Dmitri, shrugged off the event. “A meteor fell,” he said. “So what? Who knows what can fall out of the sky? It didn’t hit anybody. That is the important thing,”