The tongue of flame

The Siberian newspapers of the time were no better informed than their distant British and American counterparts, but the explosion was reported widely.

In the Irkutsk newspaper Sibir on 15 July, a correspondent reported that on the morning of 30 June peasants in the village of Nizhne-Karelinskoye (about 465 kilometres from the explosion site) saw quite high above the horizon a body shining very brightly with a bluish-white light. The body was in the form of 'a pipe', and too bright for the naked eye. It moved vertically downwards for about ten minutes before it approached the ground and pulverised the forest. A huge cloud of black smoke was formed 'and a loud crash, not like thunder, but as if from the fall of large stones or from gunfire was heard. All the buildings shook and at the same time a forked tongue of flame broke through the cloud.' The incident frightened the villagers and they ran out into the street in panic. Everyone thought that the end of the world was approaching.

At the time of the explosion, the correspondent of the Sibir report was in Kirensk (about 500 kilometres away) and 'heard in the northwest what sounded like gunfire repeated at intervals at least ten times, and lasting in all about fifteen minutes'. He noted that the northwest-facing windows in several houses were shattered.

The newspaper Golos Tomska sent a correspondent to the town of Kansk (about 635 kilometres from the site), near which a large meteorite was rumoured to have fallen, to verify the information. On 17 July the newspaper said that 'all the details of the fall of the meteorite should be ascribed to the overactive imagination of impressionable people'. The newspaper, however, accepted that 'there is no doubt that a meteorite fell, probably some distance away, but its huge mass and so on are very doubtful'. On 28 July the newspaper reported an earthquake in Kansk on the morning of 30 June. The report said that the earthquake was followed by a subterranean crash and a roar as if from distant firing. 'Doors, windows and the lamps before icons were all shaken', the report continued. 'Five to seven minutes later a second crash followed, louder than the first, accompanied by a similar roar and followed after a brief interval by yet another crash, fainter than the first two.'

A detailed and dramatic description of the event appeared in the Krasnoyarsk newspaper Krasnoyarets on 26 July, from the paper's correspondent in the village of Kezhma (about 215 kilometres away). This is the only newspaper report to come from the inhabited place nearest to the explosion site. After a detailed description of 'a subterranean shock which caused buildings to tremble', the newspaper quoted witness reports that said that 'before the first bangs were heard a heavenly body of a fiery appearance cut across the sky from south to north ... neither its size nor shape could be made out owing to

Figure 2: Map of Tunguska and the surrounding areas showing the extent of various eyewitness observations. Key: 1 - impact site; 2 - flight path of the fireball; 3 - extent of fireball visibility; 4 - extent of explosion sounds; 5 - track of the first Tunguska expedition. Approximate scale: 1 cm = 175 km. (Courtesy Marek Zbik, University of South Australia.)

Figure 2: Map of Tunguska and the surrounding areas showing the extent of various eyewitness observations. Key: 1 - impact site; 2 - flight path of the fireball; 3 - extent of fireball visibility; 4 - extent of explosion sounds; 5 - track of the first Tunguska expedition. Approximate scale: 1 cm = 175 km. (Courtesy Marek Zbik, University of South Australia.)

its speed and particularly its unexpectedness'. The report went on to say that when the flying object touched the horizon a huge flame shot up that cut the sky in two. 'The bangs were heard as soon as the "tongue of flame" disappeared. On the island near the village the horses and cows became noisy and began running wildly about ... Terrible shocks were heard coming from somewhere. They shook the earth, and their unknown source inspired a kind of superstitious terror. People were literally dumbfounded.' The report also noted that the blaze must have lasted for at least a minute because it was noticed by many peasants in the fields.

The 'tongue of flame' or the 'tongue of fire' seems a common eyewitness description of the Tunguska fireball and it appears in many Siberian newspapers of the time. A report from the village of Nizhne-Ilimskoye (about 420 kilometres away) said that the population there and in the surrounding villages saw 'a fiery body like a beam' shoot from south to northwest before they heard the thunder. The fiery body disappeared immediately after the bang and a 'tongue of fire' appeared in its place, which was followed by smoke.

Many Russian newspapers outside Siberia also published news of the bright nights and shiny clouds seen at the time, but there was hardly any report on the fireball (there was no Pravda yet: it was started by Leon Trotsky in October 1908 in Vienna, moving to St Petersburg in 1912 and then to Moscow in 1918). However, on 4 July 1908 The Trading Industrial Gazette (St Petersburg) ran a short piece headlined: 'more about the fall of the meteorite: yesterday we received a telegram saying only - the noise was considerable but no stone fell'.

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