Editors Note: The news of a meteor exploding over Russia on Friday got us thinking back to Answer Man Roger Schlueter's column four years ago, recounting a similar incident in Illinois in the 1920s. This column ran March 1, 2009:
Q. I remember my grandfather telling me of a rather large meteor that struck the metro-east maybe 100 years ago. Of course, my friends think the only thing that's falling is my ability to remember. Can you rescue me? -- T.L., of Freeburg
A. Tilden's Harry Hirte was one farmer who nearly was sorry to be out standing in his field, as the old joke goes.
It was about 1 p.m. on July 13, 1927, when Hirte went back to his plowing after lunch. Suddenly he heard "three distinct explosions followed by a rumbling and then a screeching noise," according to an account in the July 21 Belleville Daily Advocate.
A moment later, Hirte saw a cloud of dust rise from a clover field on the nearby farm of Henry Dunn, which was just a quarter-mile north of Tilden proper. Hirte admitted being afraid, but when he went to investigate, he found a whopping 47-pound meteorite that had embedded itself 2 feet into the dirt.
Hirte wasn't the only person to make an out-of-this-world discovery that day. Nearby, Allen Raney, a coal miner, reported finding a 9-pound chunk that had buried itself a foot in the ground. Like Hirte, Raney reported his surprise in finding the rock cool to the touch when he dug it up.
Soon Hirte's unusual specimen was drawing hundreds of spectators when it was displayed in Sparta, Tilden and the offices of the Daily Advocate. Today, pieces of the meteor are at the Illinois State Museum, the Field Museum in Chicago and the University of Iowa.
"I was too little I think to remember too much, but I remember my grandfather talking about it," Tilden's Shirley Bergner, on whose grandfather's farm the biggest chunk fell, told me recently. "And one time when we were in Springfield we went to the museum and were able to see it. He did sell it to them as I remember. I don't know how much he got -- $50 or something."
If you want to see a picture of Hirte holding up his out-of-this-world find and read an in-depth report on the meteor, go to www.idaillinois.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/isac/id/6675/rec/13. Go to page 442.
Since then, there have been at least three other encounters with the sky falling in Illinois. On Sept. 28, 1938, a meteorite smashed through the roof of Edward McCain's garage in Benld and embedded itself in the seat of his Pontiac Coupe. A neighbor, Mrs. Carl Crum, said she came within 50 feet of being hit. Other meteorites have fallen in Bloomington in the summer of 1938 and the Chicago area around midnight on March 26, 2003, according to the Field Museum.
If you're ever in Chicago, check out the nearly 3-pound meteorite and portions of McCain's damaged car at the field Museum of Natural History. Or find the picture at fieldmuseum.org.
But if all these reports have made you nervous, there's really no reason to lock yourself in a bomb shelter. While estimates run the gamut, astronomer and asteroid watcher Alan Harris once put the odds at 1 in 700,000 of being killed by a meteorite during your lifetime.