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Large explosion in sky over Tok mystifies residents

Officials say blast on Monday may have been caused by meteor

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009

FAIRBANKS - Was it a meteor falling from space?

Officials think that might be what residents saw shooting through the Alaska sky near Tok on Monday afternoon.

A tremendous explosion, like a sonic boom, drew some people outside, where they watched irregular contrails scribe a path in a clear sky.

At her home four miles west of Tok, Kathy Olding was loading a large sled with firewood to haul to her house when she was startled by an explosion. Peering out from the tarp-covered wood pile, she saw even her imperturbable Chesapeake Bay retriever, Journey, was on edge, ears cocked.

"I could kind of hear it still rumbling, like thunder," she recalled. "I thought, what in the world?"

Turning her eyes to the sky, Olding saw the oddest contrail.

"It was just like somebody took a pen and made a white cloud that went up and down and up and down and squiggly," she said, describing the pattern.

Others called 911.

Alaska State Troopers dispatcher Diane Kendall fielded several calls starting about 3:30 p.m. Most reported a loud explosion.

One caller, an adult, told Kendall an 11-year-old witnessed the entire spectacle outside.

"He said it was like a big fireball that exploded, with smoke everywhere," Kendall relayed. "The kid said, 'I think it was a meteor,' and I went, right. The Martians have landed. But then I got three other calls, boom, boom, boom. I was pretty shocked."

People reported hearing and feeling an explosion in the air, but no one called in about debris falling from the sky, said Sgt. Freddie Wells, the state trooper on duty at the time.

Responding to the reports, he went out and caught a glimpse as well.

"It seemed to appear like smoke, or a dust cloud," he said.

Fearing some sort of airplane disaster, Wells had his dispatcher call the Federal Aviation Administration in Fairbanks.

"The FAA did confirm that it was a meteor," Wells said.

Kendall called the FAA in Fairbanks. Kendall confirmed she was told that the flying object was a meteor, and that others reported seeing a similar phenomenon from the Parks Highway.

But the FAA has no official information on a meteor, said Claudia Hoversten, acting administrator for Alaska.

However, inquiries and calls concerning unidentified flying objects are not all that unusual, she said. The FAA refers many callers to the National UFO Reporting Center near Seattle, she added.

John Chappelow is a postdoctorate researcher at the Arctic Super-Computing Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks. He said the object could have been a meteor, but the sonic boom-type sound is atypical.

"That's a very rare event," he noted. "It's hard to say. It could have been a sonic boom. I wouldn't rule out a meteor."

He also noted that bright meteors and fireballs are not too unusual to see. Sounds, however, would be delayed reaching people's ears, maybe by as long as 30 seconds. Objects from space have to be quite large in order to cause sounds such as people around Tok described, a rare event but not unknown. A meteor generating a sonic boom-type noise would have been at least the size of a basketball, he suggested.

Others in Tok also heard the blast. Several of Olding's friends, including one person in Chicken, compared stories.

Some residents would like an official word on what they witnessed. Rumors abounded for a few days, ranging from the results of a secret military test gone haywire to a satellite explosion or even visitors from space.

"This is highly unusual for many, many Tokites to have heard this explosion," Olding wrote in an e-mail. "Does ANYONE know what it was? We are all dying to know."

News that the mysterious incident was likely a meteor was somewhat reassuring, laying to rest Martian theories.

"We're looking for UFOs around here," Sgt. Wells joked.

Chappelow said nearly all meteors that leave visible trails in the atmosphere are no bigger than a BB, and most are as tiny as a grain of sand. The brightness comes from the speed meteors travel into the Earth's atmosphere.



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