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Russian region begins recovery from meteor fall (+video)

By Laura Mills

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16 2013 2:59 p.m. MST

The building of the city;s city sports arena is damaged in after a meteorite fell near Chelyabinsk, about 1500 kilometers (930 miles) east of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. With a blinding flash and a booming shock wave, a meteor blazed across the western Siberian sky Friday and exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs, injuring more than 1,000 people as it blasted out windows and spread panic in a city of 1 million.

Laura Mills, Associated Press

CHELYABINSK, Russia — As a small army of people worked to replace acres of windows shattered by the enormous explosion from a meteor, many joked on Saturday about what had happened in this troubled pocket of Russia.

One of the most popular jests: Residents of the meteor were terrified to see Chelyabinsk approaching.

The fireball that streaked into the sky over this tough industrial city at about sunrise Friday was undeniably traumatic. Nearly 1,200 people were reported injured by the shock wave from the explosion, estimated to be as strong as 20 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

But it also brought a sense of cooperation in a troubled region. Large numbers of volunteers came forward to help fix the damage caused by the explosion and many residents came together on the Internet — first to find out what happened and soon to make jokes.

Chelyabinsk, nicknamed Tankograd because it produced the famed Soviet T-34 tanks, can be as grim as its backbone heavy industries. Long winters where temperatures routinely hit minus-30 Celsius (minus-22 Fahrenheit) add to a general dour mien, as do worries about dangerous facilities in the surrounding region.

In 1957, a waste tank at the Mayak nuclear weapons plant in the Chelyabinsk region exploded, contaminating 23,000 square kilometers (9,200 square miles) and prompting authorities to evacuate 10,000 nearby residents. It is now Russia's main nuclear waste disposal facility. A vast plant for disposing of chemical weapons lies 85 kilometers (50 miles) east of the city.

"The city is a place where people always seem bitter with each other," said music teacher Ilya Shibanov. But the meteor "was one of the rare times when people started to live together through one event."

"For most people, it's a good excuse for a joke," he said.

It also is why Shibanov quickly concocted a rap video that got wide Internet attention, including the lines: "''Pow, pow, pow — everything flew and factory windows crumbled. This Friday the bars are going to be full, so be ready for the aftermath."

But for many, it's been a reason to roll up their sleeves and get to work repairing the more than 4,000 buildings in the city and region where windows were shattered, or to provide other services.

More than 24,000 people, including volunteers, have mobilized in the region to cover windows, gather warm clothes and food, and make other relief efforts, the regional governor's office said. Crews from glass companies in adjacent regions were being flown in.

Gov. Mikhail Yurevich on Saturday said that damage from the high-altitude explosion —believed to have been as powerful as 20 Hiroshima bombs — is estimated at 1 billion rubles ($33 million). He promised to have all the broken windows replaced within a week.

But that is a long wait in a frigid region. The midday temperature in Chelyabinsk was minus-12 C (10 F), and for many the immediate task was to put up plastic sheeting and boards on shattered residential windows.

Meanwhile, the search continued for major fragments of the meteor.

In the town of Chebarkul, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Chelyabinsk city, divers explored the bottom of an ice-crusted lake looking for meteor fragments believed to have fallen there, leaving a six-meter-wide (20-foot-wide) hole. Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Irina Rossius told Russian news agencies the search hadn't found anything.

Police kept a small crowd of curious onlookers from venturing out onto the icy lake, where a tent was set up for the divers.

Many of them were still trying to process the memories of the strange day they'd lived through.

Valery Fomichov said he had been out for a run when the meteor streaked across the sky shortly after sunrise.

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