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1 Week Later: Following Up On Destructive Meteorite

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Exactly a week ago, a flaming meteor streaked through the skies over Russia. It exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs, over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk. A thousand people were injured. Most of them were watching the meteor, and were cut when the shock wave shattered their windows.

The people there have been cleaning up, replacing windows, and hoping to learn more about what, exactly, it was that hit their region. Our colleague David Greene is in Chelyabinsk, and is here to talk about it. David, first of all, tell us about the city and who lives there. This is a huge city, I gather.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yes, it's a big Russian city, Linda. And it's a city that has a - you know, it's had a tough history. Very industrial - there was a huge nuclear waste accident in the 1950s that many people still remember. There are reports that there's a big prison camp right outside the city that still exists today. A lot of people work in factories. It gets incredibly cold. I mean, we're talking usually negative 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit, this time of year.

And you know, I'm standing here and the buildings are - paint's peeling; old, Soviet, concrete buildings. If you think about a black-and-white photo that you would imagine from Soviet times - just dark, gray roads and snowy landscape on the outskirts, and then a real industrial city. I mean, it's a harsh place.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that Russians are generally prepared for the worst to happen. Was that the case in Chelyabinsk? Were they prepared for a disaster of this sort?

GREENE: In a sad sort of way, Russians are always prepared for the worst. There's actually a proverb that goes something like this, when you translate it: Think about bad things; and if you do that, then good things will come on their own. So it's sort of always a fixation with - that there could be tragedy that you have to confront. And so I think when this initially happened, when people saw this flash in the sky and felt this huge force that broke windows and injured people, they wondered if it was some sort of military exercise gone awry. But you know, it's turned out to be, in some ways, the good thing that comes on its own, in the eyes of many.

And people have been making the best of it. This city is back. And you know, 20,000 people - the government here says - you know, came together; and helped fix windows, and helped people who were affected. So they're really trying to turn things into something better. And they're really curious about what this was, telling jokes about it. So there's kind of a happy feeling here.

WERTHEIMER: I would imagine that the Russians would have a lot of urgency about replacing windows, considering how cold it is. I wonder, do you know any more about what actually fell from the sky?

GREENE: Well, scientists have gotten their hands on some pieces of this meteorite - from the snow. And they say it's what we expected. I mean, they say that preliminary indications are it was something extraterrestrial. It came from space. It's a pretty common form of what you would expect to be in a meteorite.

But they're actually up against something interesting. A lot of people in some of the villages around Chelyabinsk - and we were in one today - mostly younger people have been going and collecting space debris on their own. A 16-year-old pulled one out of his pocket and said, here - here's a piece of the meteorite, right here. And this black market is developing; I mean, people who have been coming to some of these villages offering, you know, 100, $200 for little handfuls of the space debris. The government's worried that people are going to be trying to sell it fraudulently. And so it's this whole, new economic reality - is developing around this stuff, whatever it is.

WERTHEIMER: A meteor as business opportunity.

GREENE: You got it.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's David Greene, reporting from Chelyabinsk in Russia. David, thank you.

GREENE: You're welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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