A glowing tomato-green fireball shot through the black Merced sky early Saturday, stunning those fortunate enough to see its brief life.

Merced resident Erika Knorn, 42, had awoken just before 2 a.m. to take her dog, Shadow, to the bathroom before returning to bed.

She gazed toward the sky and noticed the burst of color above her house near East Olive and Parsons avenues.

Erika Knorn describes witnessing a spectacular "fireball" in the sky above Merced early Saturday morning.

"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! What is that?" she recalled saying that night as if someone would answer. "Oh my gosh!"

Was it a flare? she wondered. Was it a missile?

The flash, which resembled a bright white beach ball, moved in a northwesterly descent for about six seconds, she said.

Then it turned blue-green. Three waves of light pulsed through the sky. It then began releasing gold and white sparks. About a minute later she heard three sharp booms that startled her dog into barking a few times. Other dogs in the neighborhood began howling.

She hasn't been able to get the image of it out of her head. "It was beautiful and scary in a way," she explained Monday. "I don't think I want to see one that close again."

Knorn was pointed to www.spaceweather.com, which allows people to post stories about fireball sightings.

There she found a few other accounts from people in Bishop in Inyo County, Corona in Riverside County and San Jose.

Grant Bentley wrote, "It was as if someone had set off a rescue flare that instantly bathed the countryside around Bishop in whitish blue-green light. It was easily the most massive object I have ever seen burning up as it entered the Earth's atmosphere."

George Shirakawa was driving on Interstate 280 in San Jose at the time. He wrote, "I have never seen anything like it!"

Arizona-based meteorite hunter Robert Ward said the noise Knorn heard was meteor crashing into land, thereby becoming a meteorite.

Ward, 32, has gone on more than 30 successful meteorite expeditions in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North America. He sells and trades some of the pieces he finds. Prices average at about $1 a gram, but can get as expensive as $1,000 a gram if the meteorite is from Mars or the moon. (A little more than 28 grams make an ounce.)

Based on the descriptions he's read, Ward said Knorn and others probably saw a fireball, which is a brighter version of a meteor. Meteorites can be the size of microwave ovens and even refrigerators, he said. They travel between 11,000 and 30,000 miles an hour.

The noise she heard means the meteorite may have gone to ground near or even in Merced County, he said. He's found space rocks 50 miles from people who've heard sonic booms.

Ward is contacting people in the state who have sky cameras to see if he can re-create the meteor's path and begin a recovery effort. "If I got the right information, I'd leave immediately," he said.

The most common type of meteorite is a chondrite, which is mostly silicate but contains traces of nickel and iron.

After seeing the fireball, Knorn stayed in her backyard and scanned the sky to see if any others would fall.

"I am going to start (meteor watching). It made me go, 'Wow, life,'" she said. "It changed my way of looking up."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.