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Remembering the blast that rattled Mass. in 1954

Meteor in Russia sparks memories of local sonic boom

It is a moment that John S. Lewis remembers well, nearly 60 years ago, when a “powerful blast wave” rocked his Melrose neighborhood.

“Two tremendous explosions that seemed to come from everywhere turned this city of 27,000 into a madhouse at 5:47 tonight,” the Globe report­ed on Aug. 30, 1954.

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“The blasts were impossible to pinpoint. To thousands it seemed they occurred in their own backyards. Almost nobody suspected what was apparently the real cause — two jet planes breaking the sound barrier overhead.”

The spectacular explosion and powerful shock wave that shattered windows Friday in Chelyabinsk, Russia, brought back memories for Lewis, who went on to become a planetary scientist at MIT and, later on, the University of Arizona.

Lewis, who now devotes his time to thinking about the threat and opportunity provided by objects hurtling around the solar system, described in an e-mail that hazy afternoon in the mid-1950s when the suburbs were rocked by an explosion and a fevered search for the cause.

The source of the shock wave, it turns out, was not as spectacular as a large meteor exploding over Russia. But the ensuing panic resonated with people’s reactions today: ­“Supersonic Blasts Rock ­Suburbs,” read one headline.

Apparently, two jets had created a sonic boom 20,000 feet from the ground, knocking residents off their feet, breaking windows, cracking ceilings, and tumbling two brick walls. Reports of a plane crash stirred more public confusion.

“Virtually every main thoroughfare in Melrose was jammed with autoists either trying to leave the town or to get into the area and see the report­ed plane crash,” the Globe reported.

The meteor crash in Russia has sparked a debate about whether the world is prepared to deflect hazardous objects on a collision course with Earth; in the 1950s, the twin blasts caused a similar discussion.

“It was revealed that Air Force pilots have been warned against diving over populated areas and that service flyers face dismissal from the military for violating the directive,” the Globe reported.

Carolyn Y. Johnson
can be reached at
cjohnson@globe.com.
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