Keen observers of weather might have noticed something odd about the flash of light and the subsequent loud rumble at around 10 o'clock on Sunday night - something that might have tipped them off that it wasn't just thunder and lightning.

A spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory said the official belief now is that the brilliant flash, dimmed substantially on the East End by the thick cloud cover, and the very loud and sustained rumble that followed half a minute or more later were actually caused by a large meteor, called a bolide, or fireball, streaking through the earth's atmosphere and bursting apart.

"We were sitting watching television ... and from where I was sitting I could see a bit of light," said Al Marino, who lives with his wife, Eve, in the Northwest Woods section of East Hampton. "Then there was a rumbling, not a boom at first, and then -


Like you wouldn't believe. And it went on and on. The house shook like I've never experienced."

The Marinos weren't the only ones to have noticed that the event was something more than just thunder and lightning, even on a rainy night that featured a smattering of both.

"That was like no lightning I've ever seen," said Michael Agnese, who lives in Hampton Bays. Mr. Agnese was sitting in a car at Ponquogue Beach when the flash lit up the clouds. "It was more, like, all over, not just one spot. And the thunder was so loud I couldn't believe it."

In Sag Harbor, Dan and Teresa Loos noticed the flash and boom, too. Ms. Loos thought it seemed odd but said her husband wrote it off to the line of thunderstorms passing to the north at the time.

"The way the light was just didn't really seem like lightning," Ms. Loos said. "And there was no noise," she added, for some 30 seconds after the flash.

According to Geoff Chester, of the Naval Observatory, bolides typically enter the atmosphere between 80 and 100 miles above the earth, accounting for the long pause between the flash of light and the subsequent sound associated with it. The sustained sound would likely have been caused by the object, typically about the size of a large suitcase or file cabinet, Mr. Chester said, breaking into pieces, with each individual piece emitting a sonic boom as it was slowed by the earth's atmosphere. Most "shooting stars" seen from the ground are the result of particles smaller than a pea entering the atmosphere.

Mr. Chester said that at first his office had believed the event was caused by a piece of a Russian rocket, which took a crew to the International Space Station last Thursday, crashing back to earth. But he said that space engineers now say the piece of the rocket didn't re-enter the atmosphere until more than an hour later than the event witnessed on the East Coast and was over the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Along the Atlantic coast of Virginia and North Carolina, where the weather was clear, the event was witnessed by hundreds of people as a brilliantly bright shooting star arcing across the sky, fragmenting into several pieces as it went.

Mr. Chester said that bolides are fairly common, with as many as a dozen entering earth's atmosphere a day, but are witnessed by people on only rare occasions. The most famous and widely witnessed bolide event also took place in the Northeast: a 1992 meteor that streaked across the sky from Kentucky to New York, one remnant landing on and destroying a parked car in Peekskill. But even objects big enough to be classified as a bolide often disintegrate before they reach earth.

If there was any fragment that reached the planet surface on Sunday, it likely landed in the ocean off North Carolina, Mr. Chester said.

Source: East Hampton Press