By Britt Maxwell
The Cosmic Corner
This blog is about structures that have been destroyed as a result of meteor events as reported in news since 1900.
Before I start, I should explain some of the terminology. A meteoroid is an object like an asteroid but smaller than 1 meter. A meteor is the visible streak of light seen in the sky made by a meteoroid as it impacts the atmosphere. A meteorite is a fragment of meteoroid that has hit the surface of the Earth.
This blog was inspired by the historic meteor event at Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15, where a substantial industrial building collapsed under the influence of a shock wave.
I began to research to see if there were other similar events. I was surprised to find five events with reports of the destruction of houses that were apparently caused by meteors since 1900: 1907 in China; 1946 in Mexico; 1951 in Iran; 2010 in East Jakarta, Indonesia; and 2013 in Chelyabinsk.
In these reports there was an understanding that a meteor was involved, but that somehow a meteorite must have hit the structure, although no meteorites were found with any of these events. In three reports the damage is related to the word meteorite, but no meteorite was found; and in two of the reports the phrase “meteoric stone” or “meteoric shower” is used, but again no meteorite was found.
It is important to realize that when the first four events happened there was no scientific understanding about meteor airbursts, so a meteorite was the only possible explanation. Airburst science was not developed until 1950s and early ’60s. I think these events are all shock wave damage events and only make sense if they are interpreted in that way. So I want to make it clear that this is my interpretation of these events.
Before the historical meteor event at Chelyabinsk, I think some scientists discounted these accounts of meteor events where houses were destroyed. Maybe they still do. One problem is that in only a single account (where a structure was destroyed) before Chelyabinsk were scientists reported to be involved in the investigation.
Because of the event at Chelyabinsk in February and the event at Tunguska (Siberia) in 1908 we have some firsthand accounts of the effects of destructive meteor shock waves that represent real events. We also can look at well-documented accounts of meteorite impacts with houses and other structures where the meteorite is found.
An important test of a shock wave event is that someone saw a bright meteor and reported a loud bang or a series of bangs that is commonly associated with cannon fire by witnesses in older accounts.
Based on that test only two or three of the six events I cite (the previously mentioned five plus one other to be detailed) where structures are destroyed would pass: an event in Mississippi, Chelyabinsk and maybe the Jakarta event.
I want to err on the conservative side and consider all reports of structures being destroyed that have not been proven to be false. Another potential problem is that before 1900 unscrupulous newspaper accounts of meteors were made up to help sell papers. I could not find any evidence of this happening after 1900 so I decided to start the inventory of meteor events at the year 1900.
The following is an account in The New York Times of what I think is a shock wave that destroyed a large house in 1900 in Mississippi. This event and the 1951 event in Iran are not included in any lists of historic meteorite events that I have seen.
I think they were excluded because if it is stated in the report that no meteorite is found then the event is not relevant. But I could not find where anyone has ever compiled an exclusive list of meteor events where structures were reported as being destroyed. This is the 1900 article:
METEORITE IN MISSISSIPPI
Visitor from the Heavens Explodes and Wrecks a House
Special to The New York Times
NEW ORLEANS, July 12.—The little village of Bellefontaine, in Webster County, Miss., thirty miles in the interior from this place, was the scene last night of the fall of an aerolite, or meteoric stone, which completely wrecked the large storehouse of Hodge & Mabry, and destroyed the stock of goods contained in it.
The fall of the aerolite occurred between 9 and 10 o clock, during a perfectly clear moonlight night. The destruction of the building was preceded by the appearance of a ball of fire passing swiftly through the air. It gave off during its passage enough light to greatly increase the light from the moon. As it came near a loud explosion was heard and a shower of fire burst forth from all sides of the blazing mass, having the appearance of hundreds of falling stars.
The storehouse was wrecked simultaneously with the explosion. The explosion of the aerolite caused a report like the sound of distant thunder or the roll of faraway cannon. The debris of the house is being cleared away in search of the aerolite… Many cinders of a gray gritty metal appearance have been found in the wreckage.
Analysis of the Bellefontaine event: This event is listed as a “Meteor Wrong” on the Internet, but my research shows that this really happened. This expression is a kind slang term for rocks that look like meteorites, but are not.
Because Webster County has good genealogical records, I was able to find the full name of one of the store owners and then verify that the event happened from a living granddaughter. The store owner was George Clark Mabry (1874-1952). This is one of the better meteor air burst descriptions that I have read. If anyone can contribute information about this event please contact me.
The Chelyabinsk meteorite on Feb. 15 was visible in the early morning as a brilliant superbolide (a fireball caused by a meteor reaching an apparent magnitude of 17 or brighter) that created a series of shock waves that damaged some 7,200 buildings and, according to the official Chelyabinsk website, 1,613 people were injured in the region and 69 people were hospitalized. It also apparently triggered the collapse of about 11,300 square feet of roof at the Chelyabinsk zinc plant.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the original version (“Historical meteor shock wave events that destroy structures”) posted May 27 on The Cosmic Corner, a science and engineering blog by structural engineer Britt Maxwell of Jackson. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and his blog address is http://thecosmiccorner.blogspot.com.
As reported in his blog, Maxwell informed the Progress-Times that he had tracked down George Clark Mabry’s 78-year-old granddaughter, Beverly Hannaford, and that she had confirmed the reported 1900 shock wave event in Bellefontaine.
Maxwell also said he had found a possible name for the other owner of the Bellefontaine store from county records online: K.B. Hodges (not “Hodge”), who married Dora Walker on Oct 13, 1899.
Additionally, Maxwell related that Hannaford said she has a letter regarding the meteorite reported to have destroyed the store. Although not known if Hannaford is referring to the same letter, a Bellefontaine resident previously provided this newspaper with a copy of an undated letter from The Gilliams Press Syndicate and Bureau of Associated News addressed to “Messrs. Hodge & Mabry” requesting all possible details of the “recent announcements concerning the immense meteorite and which smashing into your store wrecked both building and stock.”