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Russian meteor spurs memories of Western Pennsylvania incident in 1938

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 4:48 p.m.

CHICORA — Russia's “big bang” meteor on Friday morning caused a light burst big enough to blaze up the sky and a noise boom loud enough to shatter windows and damage buildings.

While Western Pennsylvania falls into the rest of the northeastern United States as witness to periodic meteor showers and occasional one-shot spectacular celestial events, the last one that really perked up the public was nearby in Chicora, Butler County.

About 6 p.m. June 24, 1938, a huge fireball exploded over the small borough of Chicora. At first, the commotion was thought to have been caused by an explosion in a nearby building used to store gunpowder.

Gathering outside their homes, citizens soon learned the spectacular sound-and-light show was caused by a meteor streaking across the early evening sky. Written accounts noted witnesses said it “sounded like thunder” and a sharp spike of light like a fireball exploding was enveloped in what looked like a huge cloud.

While there were no injuries reported, one cow at a Chicora farm was reputedly killed by a small stone pellet, perhaps part of a larger meteorite. Another anecdote suggests only the “cow's hide was injured.”

Later scientific studies would show that estimates based on the meteor trajectory and its trail of smoke showed the meteor weighed about 625 tons before it entered the Earth's atmosphere. It exploded about 12 miles above the Earth's surface.

Had it progressed closer to Earth before exploding, note the studies, it would have destroyed much of nearby Pittsburgh and resulted in very few survivors.

The cause of the Butler County sky display is known as “the Chicora Meteor,” named because of where it occurred. Only two meteor fragments were found initially, but two more were discovered in 1940.

The fist-size meteor fragments were split into two collections, one set going to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the other to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

In the Chicora Meteor event, the point of impact for the main meteor mass has never been found.

The Chicora strike was not widely reported by newspapers.

In the Oil Valley newspapers, headlines at that time reflected the turmoil in Europe and Adolf Hitler's growing influence, plus a rematch of the Fight of the Century between heavyweights Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. There was no mention of the meteor.

Chicora remains only one of eight sites in Pennsylvania that have yielded meteorites, according to the Carnegie. They have been found in 1850, 1886, 1887, 1891, 1907, 1923, 1938 and 1941.

In Western Pennsylvania, those sites include the 1938 meteor at Chicora and two others: the Pittsburgh Meteor find in 1850 and the Bradford Woods Meteor find in 1886, both in Allegheny County.

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