The sky is falling in Alaska - is anyone watching?

Just when I thought there were no more big surprises, that someone always knew something about everything, a flaming fireball bursts through the clouds over Haines and streaks across the sky in plain view, before spinning out like a bottle rocket over the mountains, and blowing up somewhere on the White Pass above nearby Skagway.

Some folks were sure it was a stray missile from tests planned for that January evening in the Pacific. Other people thought it was some sort of nuclear bomb from Siberia. First guesses ranged from space ships and fuel barges exploding to plane wrecks and transformers blowing up. One woman even though it might be Armageddon.

Mike Kinison stepped off his porch when he was blinded by a lighteningbright flash and seconds later saw what looked like a flaming rocket shoot through the dawn sky. He said there was a loud explosion that shook his house. Even with a clear view, he couldn't tell if it was a rocket or a meteor.

The unidentified flaming object zoomed overhead at breakfast time. By lunchtime, area radio newscasters still didn't know what it was.

We're fairly well connected to the outside world here, with the Internet and satellite dishes, but apparently it's not a two-way street. No one knew a thing about the morning fireworks show over southeast Alaska and the southern Yukon Territory, except us.

We had to alert the experts, who spent the rest of the day concluding the object that burned as brightly as a welding torch and left a contrail in the sky that lasted 45 minutes, was a meteor.

What's even odder is that, for the most part, the rest of the world still doesn't know about our weird encounter with outer space.

A flaming meteorite crashing into the ground near Manhattan makes a great plot for a movie, but the the real thing, flying right over my house, doesn't even make a blip on the national- or international-news radar screen.

A few years ago, a scientist from the University in Fairbanks said there were more people working at the average McDonalds than looking for bright shiny objects about to bounce into Earth. He thinks things have improved, but there are a lot more telescopes trained on outer space than inner space.

Meteorites that actually hit something are just too rare. On the other hand, they're more unpredictable than a tornado and can be as powerful as nuclear warheads. The best guess on ours is that it exploded with the power of 2,000 to 3,000 tons of TNT.

While no one on record has ever been killed by a meteorite, a while back a Southern lady was hit in the leg with a fragment from one while watching a western on TV. A dog died after being struck by one in Egypt, and the Smithsonian has a car that was dented by a meteorite.

And don't forget what apparently happened to the dinosaurs after an extra big meteorite crashed into their backyard.

But rather than be concerned, Alaskans who saw the meteor were happy. Everyone around here thought it was terrific that something so rare and mysterious could happen on an otherwise normal Tuesday morning in January.

Now, instead of automatically assuming loud bangs or bright lights are man- made, we scan the heavens. You really never can tell.

There is one more benefit to being so far from the center of human and media activity. If the meteor actually hit the ground, even little bits of it are worth a fortune. A marble-size meteorite from Mars could be worth a million dollars. No one's found anything yet. The odds are very slim in this snow-covered wilderness. But they're looking, and until spring anyway, they have the place to themselves.

*Heather Lende is a columnist for The Anchorage Daily News and an occasional contributor to National Public Radio's Morning Edition. This article first appeared on the Monitor's Web site

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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