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March 28, 2003

'A fireball in the sky'

Meteorite blazes a trail across Midwestern night

Tribune Staff Writer

Park Forest firefighter Dennis Kennedy holds part of a rock-like object that hit the fire station roof early Thursday morning in Park Forest, Ill.


Shortly after midnight Thursday morning, Jeff Shepherd and his family were relaxing in their Starke County home, which is not far from Bass Lake.

"All of a sudden the whole house started shaking and the windows were rattling," Shepherd said. "We didn't hear no explosion. It felt more like a small tremor."

Shepherd turned on his police scanner and started hearing radio traffic about "a fireball in the sky."

People in Rensselaer, Ind., saw it. People in Wilmington, Ohio, saw it, too. So did folks in Bourbon, North Judson, Plymouth and Pulaski County. One officer on the scanner said "it looked like a rocket," Shepherd remembered.

"Me and my sons went outside and could see a glow in the sky," Shepherd said. "We also saw meteor (debris) coming off it."

What Shepherd and many others in northern Indiana saw was likely a common stone meteorite, according to Dawn Kappel, a spokeswoman for Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

The National Weather Service in Chicago released a statement confirming impact, damage and recovery of debris in Park Forest, Ill. The object broke up in a brilliant flash upon entering the atmosphere, according to the statement.

Police in Park Forest reported an object the size of a 12-inch softball penetrated the roof of a two-story home, coming to rest in a bedroom. Another object fell through the roof of a fire station and yet another landed on a residential street.

Park Forest Police also reported minor damage to house siding and cars. All debris found tested negative for radioactivity, the release said. No injuries were reported.

A large object that crashed through a roof of a home in Park Forest, Ill., sits on top of a table with a host of others Thursday in the Park Forest police station. Local residents brought in a number of samples, some that went through windows and roofs of their homes, including the fire station.

While the National Weather Service often handles calls about possible meteorites, it does not have the expertise to determine whether the debris that fell Thursday morning was a meteoroid or "space junk."

Kappel said three astronomers from the planetarium were dispatched to the impact zone to study the debris.

"It looks like it struck in four different places," Kappel said. "It's important to examine the debris field so we can calculate how large the meteor may have been.

"Our astronomers are excited about this. It isn't very common for this to happen around here."

Marshall County Sheriff Bob Ruff said the Sheriff's Department received between five and 10 calls from people who witnessed the meteorite streaking across the sky. The first call was at 12:55 a.m.

Two sheriff's deputies saw the meteorite, along with police officers in Bourbon and Argos. Ruff said people reported seeing the meteor from U.S. 30, U.S. 6, 16th Road, Sixth Road and Carriage Hills.

"I can understand why people might be a little more nervous about things like this during these times (of war and terrorism)," Ruff said. "But we've gotten calls about meteorites before. Everybody who called said it was a possible meteorite."

According to a Starke County dispatcher, the agency received about 10 calls of the object, described by some as "a blue lightning flash." There were no reports of debris or damage in Starke County.

"We watched (the object) for a little bit," Shepherd said. "Then I called the police and told them that something shook my house."

The Associated Press reported police agencies as far north as Jasper County in northwest Indiana and as far south as Evansville received calls from people who had seen the object.

A dispatcher at the state police post in Peru told AP that calls came from Grant, Fulton and Wabash counties.

Staff writer Michael Wanbaugh:


Meteorites crash-land in suburbs

March 28, 2003


The three giddy meteorite buffs descended on Park Forest early Thursday morning, eager to poke and prod 10 pieces of rare gray and black rock that littered the south suburban community Wednesday night during a meteorite shower.

"This is like winning the lottery, just without the money," said an elated Paul Sipiera, a meteorite collector and educator, as he examined the stones collected at the Park Forest police station.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Meteorite showers with this many pieces occur in populated areas roughly every five to 20 years, two scientists said, with the last known fall in Illinois in 1938, according to the Field Museum. Showers can occur daily, but the stones usually land in an ocean or forest.

The Park Forest shower, as it will likely be dubbed by scientists, is also unique because of the number and size of the stones, with two as large as 16-inch softballs and weighing about eight pounds.

Researchers go gaga over these showers because meteorites--as meteors are called when they land on Earth--help explain how the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Meteorites are as old as the solar system.

Most rocks on Earth are 100 million years old or younger.

By studying the fragments, scientists can learn about the chemical composition of the solar system, its age and the chemical processes that occurred as the solar system cooled from gas to solid planets.

"It's a window to our past," said Steve Simon, a University of Chicago professor who lives in Park Forest and was one of the three enthusiasts at the police station early Thursday.

Wednesday's midnight shower scattered stones across Park Forest, with about 12 reported to police by day's end. At least two other communities, Olympia Fields and Matteson, also reported finding one stone each. Scientists speculate stones could also be found across the Midwest.

The fireball that preceded the shower--when the meteor entered the atmosphere and began breaking up--was seen across the upper Midwest. Simon saw the sky light up about 11:50 p.m. Wednesday.

Before entering the atmosphere, the meteor was probably the size of a minivan and traveling up to 10 miles per second, said Meenakshi Wadhwa of the Field Museum.

When the meteorite hit homes, the fire station and streets in Park Forest, it was falling at about 120 mph.

A piece of it slammed through the roof of Noe Garza's house into his bedroom, smashing a window and windowsill and ricocheting across the room to a mirror, which it shattered. Noe's 13-year-old son was sleeping only a few feet from where the meteorite hit.

In Olympia Fields, police say, another large stone crashed through the roof of a home and ended up in the basement. There were no injuries in either community.

Despite the damage they cause, these stones can be quite valuable. Dealers are wiling to pay between $1 and $10 a gram for them, one collector said.


By RICK CALLAHAN, Associated Press Writer

INDIANAPOLIS - The midnight sky flashed an eerie blue early Thursday over four Midwestern states as a meteorite exploded in the atmosphere, sending rocks as big as softballs crashing through some houses.


Residents in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin reported seeing the disintegrating meteorite flash across the sky about midnight. Police were soon deluged with reports of falling rocks striking homes and cars.

Chris Zeilenga, 42, of Beecher, Ill., said he and his wife, Pauline, were watching TV war coverage around midnight.

"The sky lit up completely from horizon to horizon. We've seen lightning storms, but this was nothing like that," he said. "A minute or so later the house started rumbling and we heard all these tiny particles hitting the house."

Outside his home about 30 miles south of Chicago, Zeilenga found tiny gray and black pieces of stone. He didn't realize their origin until he heard people talking about meteorites as he rode the morning train to work in Chicago. "When I heard that I thought, 'That's what it was!'"

Kenneth and Karen Barnes of Park Forest, Ill., told WGN-TV in Chicago they were sleeping when a 5-pound meteorite crashed into their living room. Thursday morning their son spotted a hole in the ceiling.

"I didn't know what to think, so we went looking through the house for it and found it," Kenneth Barnes said.

Commander Mike McNamara of the Park Forest Police Department said about 60 pieces of space rock ranging from gravel-sized to softball-sized were brought in to the police station.

He said three homes in Park Forest were damaged, along with the fire department and possibly one car. Two homes in the nearby town of Matteson also were struck by meteorite pieces.

Paul Sipiera, a professor of geology and astronomy at Harper College in Palatine, Ill., spent Thursday examining dozens of pieces of meteorites and plotting where they fell. The largest he saw was about 7 1/2 pounds.

He said the debris field appears to cover a path about 80 miles long by 20 miles wide from north of Bloomington, Ill., to Chicago's south side and possibly part of northwestern Indiana.

He said all of the pieces came from a stony meteorite he estimates was about the size of a Volkswagen bug when it exploded as it plunged into Earth's atmosphere.

A spokesman for the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., said the defense installation was not tracking any manmade space objects in the area at the time that the light show appeared over the Midwest.

Sipiera said it's very rare for meteorites to fall on populated areas.

"For me, it's a dream come true," he said. "I always tell my wife that when I die, I hope I get hit in the head by a meteorite flying through the roof and it came pretty close," he said.

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