Indian officials gather at site where it was believed meteorite killed a man (photo: Getty Images)
By Christine Hauser, New York Times
The news reported by Indian newspapers and picked up by many outlets around the world was startling: A bus driver was killed and three people were injured after a meteorite hit a college campus Saturday. If true, it would have been the first scientifically confirmed report of someone being killed by a meteorite.
By Tuesday, however, the story appeared to be fizzling as scientific experts weighed in.
The early reports included images of a crater, 5 feet deep and 2 feet wide. Witnesses described hearing an explosion, and the police recovered a black, pockmarked stone from the site, in southeast India. A local official, Jayalalitha Jayaram, promised compensation for the families of the driver, who was hit by debris, and for the other three people, The Times of India reported.
At the college in the Tamil Nadu district of Vellore, the driver, identified only as Kamaraj, died of his injuries after window panes in the engineering building and on several buses shattered, officials there told the local media.
“Considering that there was no prediction of a meteorite shower and there was no meteorite shower observed, this certainly is a rare phenomena if it is a meteorite,” said Prof. G.C. Anupama, the dean of the institute, in a telephone interview Tuesday.
But NASA scientists in the United States were more emphatic, saying that the photographs posted online were more consistent with “a land-based explosion” than with something from space.
Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, said in an email that a death by meteorite impact was so rare that one had never been scientifically confirmed in recorded history.
“There have been reports of injuries, but even those were extremely rare before the Chelyabinsk event three years ago,” she said, referring to a 2013 episode in Russia.
The object recovered from the site in India weighed only a few grams and appeared to be a fragment of a common Earth rock.
Deaths and injuries by meteorites are tracked by the International Comet Quarterly, which notes the locations and sizes of meteorites. Some damage structures and kill animals.
But deaths have been hard to confirm. In 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia, an apparent “airblast” of an object entering Earth’s atmosphere leveled hundreds of square miles of forest and killed two men and hundreds of reindeer. But no meteorites were recovered, the quarterly said.
There are reports of people’s limbs being amputated by meteorites, of farm animals being killed by them and of meteorites crashing through the roofs of houses. In 1954, a woman in Sylacauga, Alabama, was hit by a particle from a meteorite that fell through the roof of her house. The object weighed 9 pounds.
Meteorites are fragments spawned from meteors — they are basically pieces of space rock. In one of the largest recent events, meteorites fell in Chelyabinsk from a meteor that hit Earth’s atmosphere in February 2013. About 1,200 people — 200 of them children — were injured, mostly by glass that exploded into schools and workplaces, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry.