The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 16, 2013

Cleanup begins after meteor

By Will Englund
The Washington Post

— MOSCOW — The big blast from outer space was still reverberating in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Saturday, as glaziers went to work replacing windows, divers vainly sought meteorite fragments at the bottom of a lake, doctors tended the wounded, residents found new ways to doubt the authorities and seemingly everyone looked expectantly to Moscow for the flood of cash that rolls in on the heels of catastrophe.

Regional Gov. Mikhail Yurevich felt the need to deny that some residents had broken their own windows in the aftermath of Friday's meteor to qualify for financial assistance. Even if that were true, though, it would be small potatoes compared to the compensation in store.

As early as Friday evening, the governor had announced that, throughout the city, 200,000 square meters of glass would have to be replaced. That's just about 50 acres' worth — all of it paid for by the government. That no one could have made such a calculation with any degree of accuracy in just a few hours was beside the point. Here was an unexpected opportunity to place a very large order.

Yurevich estimated the total damage at about $33 million, but several officials suggested that figure will rise.

" 'Force majeure' circumstances are always a gift to the authorities," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a leading political consultant in Moscow, "because you can just write off everything that's stolen."

Mere hours after the meteor streaked across the sky and then broke into pieces with devastating force, Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, pushed for plans for a terrestrial defense system to protect against future meteors, asteroids and comets and their sonic booms. As of Friday night, Pavlovsky said, government scientists were saying those plans would cost about $2 billion, but on Saturday morning, "after Moscow woke up," the projected price tag had doubled.

About 40 people remained in hospitals Saturday, out of 1,200 who had sought treatment for injuries; one woman was evacuated to Moscow in serious condition. Yurevich was not the only person to observe that it was close to a miracle no one had been killed by flying glass.

At School No. 37 in Chelyabinsk, a quick-thinking substitute teacher, Yulia Karbysheva, got all 44 of her fourth graders out of harm's way as the meteor lit up the sky, the Interfax news agency reported. After the intense bright flash of its explosion, the children rushed to the windows, but before the shock wave could hit, she commanded them to get under their desks.

Karbysheva herself was then showered with glass and debris, but the children were unharmed. With a cut to a tendon in her left hand and a gash on her left thigh, she led her class to safety outdoors. The doctor treating her Saturday at Hospital No. 9 told Interfax she would recover.

Although parts of a wall and roof at a zinc factory collapsed, the most badly damaged building in the city was the Ice Palace, a skating arena. The governor said it will require at least $6 million in publicly financed repairs.

About 20,000 police and emergency workers were mobilized to get the city and region back in order. A team of nine glaziers flew in from the city of Tyumen to help with the windows. Meanwhile, with a perfectly round hole about 20 feet across having suddenly appeared in a frozen lake outside Chelyabinsk city, divers went searching for meteorite fragments, but they came up empty-handed.

The meteor, traveling at about 40,000 miles an hour, unleashed the energy of 20 Hiroshima-size bombs as it detonated in the atmosphere.

Shortly afterward, a military spokesman told news services that it had been shot down by an air defense unit. Later, an official with the Ministry of Emergency Situations said that text-message alerts had been sent out before the big blast. Neither assertion was true; both drew strong criticism and mockery online.

The text-message claim seems to have been inspired by the failure of officials last summer to warn residents of Krymsk, in southern Russia, of a flood they knew was coming.

Remarkably, the Ministry of Emergency Situations announced Friday night that the offending official — unnamed — had been fired.

Sergei Parkhomenko, a former science editor turned political writer, speaking on the Ekho Moskvy radio station, said authorities had lived up to popular expectations.

"As we can see, the first reaction is this: 'Everybody lies,' " he said. "The second: 'Everything is stolen.' That's what we hear in response to various statements by all officials — local, regional and federal. People are treated with great disdain, and there is a huge variety of fantasies, fears, some panic and so on. Why is this happening? From distrust."

Of course, a meteor streaking in unbidden from space on an otherwise normal day to shower destruction on a city of more than 1 million was unnerving enough on its own.

It was "the Lord's message to humanity," said Feofan, the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of Chelyabinsk and Zlatoust, in a statement reported by the RIA Novosti agency.

"From the scriptures, we know that the Lord often sends people signs and warnings via natural forces," he said. "I think that not only for the Ural [region's] residents, but for the whole of humanity, the meteorite is a reminder that we live in a fragile and unpredictable world."