MOSCOW -- With a blinding flash and a booming shock wave, a meteor blazed across the western Siberian sky Friday and exploded with the force of 20 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, injuring more than 1,000 people as it blasted out windows and spread panic in Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million.
While NASA estimated the meteor was only about the size of a bus and weighed an estimated 7,000 tons, the fireball it produced was spectacular. Video shot by startled residents of the city of Chelyabinsk showed its streaming contrails as it arced toward the horizon just after sunrise, looking like something from a world-ending science-fiction movie.
The largest recorded meteor strike in more than a century occurred hours before a 150-foot asteroid passed within about 17,000 miles of Earth. The European Space Agency said its experts had determined there was no connection between the asteroid and the Russian meteor, which were traveling in opposite directions.
The meteor above western Siberia entered the Earth's atmosphere about 9:20 a.m. local time at a hypersonic speed of at least 33,000 mph and shattered into pieces 18 to 32 miles high, the Russian Academy of Sciences said.
NASA estimated its speed at about 40,000 mph, said it exploded about 12 to 15 miles high, released 300 to 500 kilotons of energy and left a trail 300 miles long.
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Moment of panic
"There was panic. People had no idea what was happening," said Sergey Hametov of Chelyabinsk, 930 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains. "We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud, thundering sound," he said.
The shock wave blew in an estimated 1 million square feet of glass, according to city officials, who said 3,000 buildings in Chelyabinsk were damaged. At a zinc factory, part of the roof collapsed.
The Interior Ministry said about 1,100 people sought medical care after the shock wave and 48 were hospitalized. Most of the injuries were caused by flying glass, officials said.
Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Vladimir Purgin said many of the injured were cut as they flocked to windows to see what caused the intense flash of light, which momentarily was brighter than the sun.
Some meteorite fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Chebarkul, the regional Interior Ministry office said. The crash left a 26-foot crater in the ice.
Lessons had just started at Chelyabinsk schools when the meteor exploded, and officials said 258 children were among those injured.
Russian television ran video of athletes at a city sports arena who were showered by shards of glass from huge windows. Some of them were still bleeding. Other videos showed a long shard of glass slamming into the floor close to a factory worker and massive doors blown away by the shock wave.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the incident showed the need for leading world powers to develop a system to intercept objects falling from space.
"At the moment, neither we nor the Americans have such technologies" to shoot down meteors or asteroids, he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The panic and confusion that followed the meteor quickly gave way to typical Russian black humor and entrepreneurial instincts. Several people smashed in the windows of their houses in the hopes of receiving compensation, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
One of the most popular Internet jokes was that the meteorite was supposed to fall on Dec. 21, 2012 -- when many believed the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world -- but was delivered late by Russia's notoriously inefficient postal service.