On Saturday, a mysterious explosion at the Bharathidasan Engineering College in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu left one dead and three injured. According to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the cause of the explosion was determined to be a meteorite, e.g. a piece of a comet or asteroid that makes it to Earth’s surface.
The victim of the meteorite explosion was a bus driver for the college. He was reportedly walking near one of the college’s buildings when the meteorite struck the ground close by, shattering the windows of the building and leaving a crater in the Earth. The man sustained serious injuries from the fallout and was pronounced dead on Saturday. In a statement released Sunday, Jayalalithaa promised 100,000 rupees (approximately $1,600 USD) to the family of the deceased and 25,000 rupees (approximately $400 USD) to each of the other three injured victims.
This marks the first human fatality directly attributed to a meteorite with any certainty, which makes sense considering just how unlikely it is for this to happen. It’s hard to tell exactly how many meteorites make it to Earth each year, but a study conducted in 1996 pegs the number a somewhere between 18,000 and 84,000 meteorites that are over 10 grams annually. Overall, the odds of getting hit by a meteorite are about 1 in 125,000. For a US citizen this is approximately the same odds of dying by legal execution or dog bite, which is still more likely than dying by lightning strike (1 in 164,968).
Despite the weak chances, there have still been a number of close calls in history, many of which have been helpfully compiled by Harvard’s International Comet Quarterly. Many readers may remember the meteorite which exploded over the Chelyabinsk region in 2013, causing millions of dollars in damage and injuring over 1200 people, but despite the size of this event there were no fatalities. Other meteorites have dismembered people (including a Chinese woman who allegedly had her arm “torn off” by a meteorite in 1915) and one woman in Alabama was directly struck by a meteorite in 1954. But all survived to tell the tale.
Based on the data compiled in the International Comet Quarterly, it seems as though Indians are particularly vulnerable to meteorite attacks. In 1825 a man was allegedly struck by a meteorite and killed, although no fragments of the offending meteorite could be recovered. In 1827 another Indian man was wounded “severely in the arm” by a meteorite, and a 2003 meteor shower destroyed several houses and injured 20 people in the Indian state of Orissa.