MOSCOW — Gym class came to a halt inside the Chelyabinsk Railway Institute, and students gathered around the window, gazing at the fat white contrail that arced its way across the morning sky. A missile? A comet? A few quiet moments passed. And then, with incredible force, the windows blew in.
The scenes from Chelyabinsk, rocked by an intense shock wave when a meteor hit the Earth's atmosphere Friday morning, offer a glimpse of an apocalyptic scenario that many have walked through mentally, and Hollywood has popularized, but scientists say has never before injured so many.
Students at the institute crammed through a staircase thickly blanketed with glass out to the street, where hundreds stood in awe, looking at the sky. The flash came in blinding white, so bright that the vivid shadows of buildings slid swiftly and sickeningly across the ground. It burst yellow, then orange. And then there was the sound of frightened, confused people.
Around 1,200 people, 200 of them children, were injured, mostly by glass that exploded into schools and workplaces, according to Russia's Interior Ministry. Others suffered skull trauma and broken bones. No deaths were reported.
President Vladimir Putin summoned the nation's emergencies minister and ordered immediate repairs.
As scientists pieced together the events that led to Friday's disaster — on the very day a small asteroid passed close to Earth — residents of Chelyabinsk were left to grapple with memories that seemed to belong in science fiction.
"I opened the window from surprise — there was such heat coming in, as if it were summer in the yard, and then I watched as the flash flew by and turned into a dot somewhere over the forest," wrote Darya Frenn, a blogger. "And in several seconds there was an explosion of such force that the window flew in along with its frame, the monitor fell, and everything that was on the desk."
At 9 a.m., the sun had just risen on the Ural Mountains. The area around Chelyabinsk is a constellation of defense-manufacturing cities, including some devoted to developing and producing nuclear weapons.
As residents began their day, a 10-ton meteor around 10 feet in diameter was hurtling toward the Earth at a speed of about 10 to 12 miles per second, experts from the Russian Academy of Sciences reported in a statement released Friday.
This meteor was unusual because its material was so hard — possibly iron, the statement said — which allowed some small fragments, or meteorites, to reach the Earth's surface.
The sonic boom that occurred over Chelyabinsk was forceful enough to shatter dishes and televisions in homes. Car alarms were triggered for miles around.
Russian-language hashtags for the meteorite quickly shot up into Twitter's top trends.
"Jeez, I just woke up because my bed started shaking! The whole house is moving!" tweeted Alisa Malkova.
Maria Polyakova, 25, head of reception at the Park-City Hotel in Chelyabinsk, said it was the light that caught her eye.
"I saw a flash in the window, turned toward it and saw a burning cloud, which was surrounded by smoke and was going downward — it reminded me of what you see after an explosion," she said. The blast that followed was forceful enough to shatter the heavy automatic glass doors on the hotel's first floor, as well as many windows on the floor above, she said.
Valentina Nikolayeva, a teacher in Chelyabinsk, described it as "an unreal light" that filled all the classrooms on one side of School No. 15.
She said she saw a vapor trail, like one that appears after an airplane, only dozens of times bigger, she said in a clip posted on a news portal, LifeNews.ru. "The light was coming from there. It was a light which never happens in life, it happens probably only in the end of the world."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.