Millions of meteors and other space debris enter the Earth’s atmosphere daily. Most of them are small and burn up before reaching the ground. The ones that enter the atmosphere in the daylight hours usually go unnoticed. Meteors which enter the atmosphere at night are more visible and are commonly called falling stars. An average of 17 meteors per day reach the Earth’s surface, whether it be land or sea, at which time they are called meteorites.
On November 30, 1954, one such meteor was traveling through space and heading towards Earth. The meteor entered the atmosphere at a high rate of speed and began to burn. The meteor was extremely hot and under immense pressure. At about 12:45 p.m., when the meteor was about 40 miles up in the Earth’s atmosphere, it could no longer take the heat and pressure and exploded.
34-year-old Ann Elizabeth Fowler “Hewlett” Hodges was enjoying a peaceful afternoon nap in a home she rented on the outskirts of Sylacauga, Alabama. The day had been uneventful so far, and Mrs. Hodges expected the remainder of the day to be equally as lackluster. As she slept, the 12-pound meteorite struck the home, tore a three-foot-wide hole through the roof of the living room, ricocheted off Mrs. Hodges’ husband’s console radio, and struck Mrs. Hodges on her arm and hip as she slept. Even though it had reached a burning hot temperature as it passed through the atmosphere, by the time it reached Mrs. Hodges’ living room, it was “too cold to handle.” The meteorite left Mrs. Hodges with substantial bruising, but no serious injuries.
Witnesses in three states reported seeing a “bright flash” followed by an explosion in the sky. A resident of Smith’s Station, Alabama, about 90 miles southeast of Sylacauga, telephoned the Russell County military sheriff’s office and reported seeing the flash and hearing the explosion. Like many others, the resident thought she had witnessed a mid-air airplane disaster. Crews aboard two army helicopters from Fort Benning, Georgia, and several airplanes from Lawson Field began searching a 30-mile radius from the Chattahoochee River for the crash site. After several hours of searching, the search party received reports from Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery of a possible meteorite striking a house at Sylacauga. Searchers in Sylacauga, which included members of the national guard, the state police, reporters, and spectators, drove the backroads around Sylacauga. They followed army helicopters from Maxwell Air Force Base and converged on Mrs. Hodges’ home.
Newspapers reported in jest that “some meteorites” including the one that struck Mrs. Hodges’ “continue to travel with ‘great velocity’ after reaching the earth. An air force helicopter crew took possession of the meteorite so it could be studied at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. A few days later, the meteorite was flown to Washington, D.C. Finally, after being in our nation’s capital for just two days, Mrs. Hodges’ attorney retrieved the meteorite and returned it to her.
Within days of its crash, interest in Mrs. Hodges and her meteorite soared. The Hodges received nearly 100 offers for the meteorite. The Dayton Art Institute offered $5,000 for the meteorite, the highest price at the time. The Smithsonian Institute was interested in the object but was unwilling to pay more than $900 for it. In the midst of the media hype, Mrs. Hodges appeared on an episode of the television game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” in which a panel tried to guess what her secret was. Seeing how much interest there was in the meteor, the owner of the home Mrs. Hodges had rented sued Mrs. Hodges to take possession of the meteorite. Mrs. Hodges and the landlord settled out of court and Mrs. Hodges retained ownership of the meteorite. In 1955, Mrs. Hodges sold the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History at the University of Alabama where it and the console radio remain on display.
What are the odds of being struck by a meteorite? Michael Reynolds, author of “Falling Stars: A Guide to Meteors and Meteorites,” said “you have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time.” Although millions of meteors enter our atmosphere each day and an average of 17 reach the ground, Mrs. Hodges is the only person in recorded history to be injured by a meteorite.