Some feared a plane was about to fall out of the sky while others thought the world was ending.
In fact, it was a meteor streaking across the sky before exploding in a fireball brighter than the sun.
The terrifying sight was caught in these astonishing pictures by residents of central Russia as they headed to work yesterday.
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Ice breaker: An official standing near an eight-meter hole left by the meteorite in the surface of a frozen lake near the town of Chebarkul
Debris: Chunks of black matter, ranging between 5mm and 10mm in diameter, were found scattered around the ice hole caused by the meteorite
Investigation: Officials stand around the hole caused by the meteorite strike, which also set off a dangerous sonic boom
Unexpected sight: A terrifying meteorite shower left a thousand people injured, buildings devastated and the mobile network wiped out when it hit Russia this morning
Terrifying: Brightly burning rocks could be seen for hundreds of kilometres as they crashed at around 9.20am local time and one bystander described it 'like a scene from the Armageddon movie'
Spectacular sky: The Urals region was struck by falling meteorite fragments which fell in the city of Chelyabinsk, 900 miles east of Moscow and close to the Kazakhstan border
Disaster: This graphic shows the sequence of events which led to the meteor crashing in Russia
A thunderous ‘sonic boom’ shattered windows, rocked buildings and interrupted mobile phone networks.
Almost 1,000 people were injured by flying fragments of glass and rubble – at least 112 seriously.
Footage taken by ‘dashcams’ – dashboard cameras common in the cars of Russians in case of accidents on winter roads or disputes with corrupt traffic police – mean the supersonic blaze has been captured, and shared with the world, in unprecedented detail.
The burst of light and thunderous sound were caused by a 40-ton meteor penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 33,000mph.
As it raced through the sky, the 50-foot wide chunk of space rock compressed the air ahead of it, creating the enormous temperatures that meant it exploded in a fireball somewhere between 18 and 32 miles above the ground at around 9.20am local time.
Although some debris fell to earth, ‘whipping up a pillar of ice, water and steam’ and creating a 20-foot-wide crater, the damage in nearby towns was actually caused by shockwaves created by the meteor breaking the sound barrier and then exploding.
Before and after: A video showed a street scene in Russia before the meteorite shower struck. Seconds later the street was lit up in a haze of bright white as the large fireball exploded
Speed: Russia's space agency Roscosmos said the meteorite was travelling at a speed of 30 km (19 miles) per second and that such events were hard to predict
VIDEO Unbelievable footage. Meteor shatters classroom, sonic boom reverberates
Interception: According to an unconfirmed report in Russia Today, the meteor was intercepted by Russian air defense
Shockwave: People heading to work in Chelyabinsk heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt a shockwave
One resident of the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains, said: ‘I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it was day. I felt like I was blinded by headlights.’
Some believed the world was ending and video footage posted online showed screaming youngsters at a school where corridors were littered with broken glass.
Gulnara Dudka, a resident of Chelyabinsk, 930 miles east of Moscow and the biggest city in the affected region, said: ‘I really thought it was doomsday.’
Teacher Valentina Nikolayeva, who tried to protect her pupils from the force of the blast said: ‘There was an unreal light that lit up all the classrooms.
‘That kind of light doesn’t happen in life, only at the end of the world – then a trail appeared like from a plane but only ten times bigger.’
The emergencies ministry said that more than 20,000 rescue workers had been dispatched to locate and help those injured in Russia’s industrial heartland and an area that houses nuclear and chemical weapons disposal facilities.
Amazingly, there were no fatalities and most of the wounded were hurt by flying glass – some 1.8million square feet of which will have to be replaced.
Russian news networks noted that the meteor struck just hours before the Earth was due its closest recorded shave with an asteroid.
However, space experts said the arrival of the much larger asteroid was merely a coincidence.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queens University Belfast, said there was ‘almost definitely’ no connection between the exploding meteor and asteroid 2012 DA14.
‘This is literally a cosmic coincidence, although a spectacular one,’ he said.
Russia’s emergencies ministry described the event as ‘a meteor shower in the form of fireballs’ and urged residents not to panic.
Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said the meteor could be a symbol for the vulnerability of the economy – and the ‘whole planet’.
Meanwhile, the deputy prime minister quashed suggestions that the military had tried to shoot the meteor out of the sky, saying that, as yet, no one has the technology.
And Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken nationalist leader, said: ‘It’s not meteors falling. It’s the test of a new weapon by the Americans.’
British experts said that thousands of tons of material from space rains down on the Earth each day, but nearly all of it burns up and disintegrates far from the view of the naked eye.
Occasionally a meteor can come so close that its explosion is felt, as happened yesterday, or a small meteorite or large asteroid can actually hit the planet.
Smoking: Pictures show a streak of smoke followed by several bright blasts of flames
Coincidence: Early indications are that the shower is unrelated to Asteroid 2012 DA14, which is due to skim the orbit of the Earth later today
High in the sky: The vapour trail of a falling meteorite is seen in the sky over the city of Chelyabinsk
Injured: A man identifying himself as Viktor poses for a photograph after receiving treatment for injuries after the meteorite shower hit the Russian region
Broken glass is removed from this injured girl's hand
Wounded: This woman suffered cuts across her face when the sonic boom of the meteor sent broken glass flying
Medical treatment: Many injured had bloodied faces from being hit by shards of glass broken in the explosions
Toll: Hundreds of people were injured, but there have been no reports of fatalities
VIDEO Moment Meteorite shower hits caught on camera
Dr Simon Goodwin, an astrophysicist from Sheffield University, said: ‘While events this big are rare, an impact that could cause damage and death could happen every century or so.
'It very much depends on where it hits. A big enough meteor could cause significant immediate death and maybe cause climate change by releasing dust into the air – these are maybe every few thousand years.
‘And a really big impact occurs every few ten millions of years and can cause mass extinctions. One killed the dinosaurs.
‘Scientifically this is not hugely interesting. Probably its greatest importance is to make people realise that things fall from space all the time, and every now and then they can be dangerous.
‘And an impact in a heavily populated area could kill huge numbers of people with no warning or chance of stopping it.'
Sonic boom: Tim O'Brien, associate director of the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, said the injuries were caused when the meteor created a sonic boom causing windows to shatter
Explosion: Eyewitnesses spoke of several devastating explosions rocking buildings and shattering glass
Damaged: A zinc factory in Chelyabinsk was seen with a partially collapsed roof and walls in the morning after meteor pieces rained on the town
Moment of impact: A pair, seen on CCTV, cower from the impact as the window near them explodes
Injured: Four schoolchildren were known to have been injured from broken glass
Unexpected: Eyewitnesses spoke of several devastating explosions rocking buildings and shattering glass
One eyewitness Gulnara Dudka, in her 20s, gave a dramatic account of the meteorite, telling how she feared 'doomsday' had arrived, reported the Siberian Times.
'What was it? People said it was a plane that fell and exploded,' she said.
'I saw a bright blast from behind me. Everything was lit up, very bright light.
'It was like from Armageddon movie when the meteorite rain started, I really thought it was like doomsday.
'It was so scary especially the explosion. It was very strong. I am speechless. It was so strong. My camera couldn't reproduce how strong the bang was.'
'I was sitting at home and typing something on my computer. Suddenly there was a huge bright flash,' said Konstantin Zharinov, an historian and journalist from Chelyabinsk.
VIDEO Dramatic moment workers run for cover as meteorite strikes
Hurt: A school in Chelyabinsk took a fair brunt of the explosion - four students were injured
Blown out: A building damaged by the shockwave from the meteorite
Surprise: Shocked residents look up in the sky with horror
Aftermath: People look at damage to a shop following the meteor shower
Shattered: The city of Chelyabinsk, 900 miles east of Moscow and close to the Kazakhstan border, took the brunt of the impact
'At first I thought something happened at my neighbours place but a minute later the sound of the explosion came.'
He said 'many lost their windows, glass is everywhere in the streets'.
Children were left panic-stricken as windows smashed at School Number 15 in Chelyabinsk.
'First there was an unreal light that lit up all the classrooms on the right side of the school. That kind of light doesn't happen in life, only at the end of the world, then a trail appeared like from a plane but only 10 times bigger,' said teacher Valentina Nikolayeva.
Residents in one 19 storey block reported feeling the shockwaves of the explosions.
The sounds of car alarms and breaking windows could be heard in the area, said a witness, and there were reports that the internet and mobile networks were temporarily down.
Destroyed: The building of the local zinc plant badly damaged by a shockwave from a meteorite impact
Getting to work: Rescue servicemen work at the site of a collapsed wall and roof of the concentrate warehouse of the zinc plant in Chelyabinsk
HALF A MILLION KILOMETRES AWAY, ANOTHER ASTEROID IS COMING...
At first glance it may seem a more than a coincidence that this meteorite shower has struck Earth just hours before asteroid 2012 DA14 is due to skim past our planet tonight.
Yet astronomers say that a coincidence is all it is.
Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society told MailOnline: 'As I understand it, the Russian meteorite(s) were travelling from east to west whereas 2012 DA14 will be travelling from north to south.
'In any case with a 12 hour time difference, the objects are at least half a million km apart, so unrelated.'
His view was backed up by Dr Phil Plait on his Bad Astronomy blog for Slate and the European Space Agency.
The ESA wrote on Twitter (@esaoperations): 'ESA experts at #ESOC confirm *no* link between #meteor incidents in #Russia & #Asteroid #2012DA14 Earth flyby tonite #SSA #NEO.'
Dr Massey added: 'So, although the incident in Russia is dramatic and the reports of injuries are unprecedented and awful - there are very few historic reports of people being hurt as a result of meteorites - it doesn’t seem to be at all relevant to tonight’s close asteroid flyby.'
What will happen tonight?
Just before 7.30pm today, a 150ft wide chunk of space rock will whizz past us in the closest shave since records began.
If it hit the planet, it could wipe out a city the size of London and do as much damage as 1,000 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima.
Nasa has stressed that ‘no Earth impact is possible’ – but scientists say there is a small chance that TV signals may be affected.
The asteroid will cut through the orbit of some satellites used for weather forecasting and for satellite phones and television.
Mobile phones won’t be affected as they rely on land-based masts and cables.
Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered last year by a Spanish dentist turned amateur astronomer and has been closely tracked ever since.
Hurtling through space at speeds of five miles a second, eight times as fast as a speeding bullet, it will come within 17,000 miles of Earth at 7.24pm tomorrow.
Astronomy expert Daniel Brown, of Nottingham Trent University, said: ‘In astronomical terms, that’s very close.’
Although the asteroid won’t be visible with the naked eye, it should be possible to see it with binoculars.
VIDEO Scientist says Russian meteorite and second near miss meteor not linked