The largest fragment found in the area of Dos Hermanas cave is 10.8 centimeters long and weighs about a kilo. Photo: Efrén Jaimez Salgado

Given the noise level, heard in all municipalities of the province of Pinar del Río, as well as the observation of intense flashes of light in the sky by many people, and the quantity of fragments detected on the ground, the meteorite that made impact in the area of Viñales February 1, is the most noteworthy event of its type recorded to date in Cuba.

DSc Efrén Jaimez Salgado explained as such to Granma International. Theassistantresearcher and head of the Department of Environmental Geology, Geophysics and Risks of the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy (IGA), attached to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (Citma), immediately visited the scene together with a team of specialists from the institution.

According to the expert, 40 to 50 pieces of the meteorite were found scattered across areas of Dos Hermanas, El Palmarito farm, Los Jazmines, El Cuajaní and in the vicinity of the town of Viñales, where a strong shock wave was noted.

According to initial estimates, the meteorite must have been much larger and heavier (it could have weighed three tons) on entering the Earth’s atmosphere, before fragmenting at an approximate height of 10-12 kilometers. However, the total size and weight cannot be calculated until the completion of the corresponding studies, Jaimez explained.

Regarding its chemical and mineral composition, and classification, he noted that although the first laboratory analysis of several of the fragments in Havana clearly demonstrated the presence of metallic crystals, presumably iron and nickel, in no case were chondrules found (droplets that rapidly cooled from a molten or nearly completely molten state to form perfectly spherical crystals), and more studies are needed to define more precisely what subtype the meteorite belongs to.

If Viñales were lacking something to become Cuba’s first UNESCO Global Geopark, the meteorite that fragmented in the atmosphere midday February 1, causing a shower of cosmic rocks over the valley, has just provided it.

Not only was this an unusual event, only sighted once before on the island (where the remains of six meteorites have been discovered), but a significant number of samples have been collected for scientific research.

The only other meteorite recorded as having been seen on impact, on June 10, 1994, in Cienfuegos, did so near a reservoir in an unpopulated area, and for that reason only two pieces could be collected.

Engineer Jesús Moreira, who was in charge of the investigations at that time, noted the great similarity between the two events.

“It was identical: a trail of light, explosions like artillery fire, and panic throughout the region,” he explained.

“It’s as if the meteorites were following me,” joked the current manager of the Castellanos Polymetallic Project, located in the north of Vueltabajo. In 1994, he had just begun his professional career in his native Cienfuegos.

“It’s a huge coincidence that it happened when I lived in Santa Isabel de las Lajas, and now that I’m working in Pinar del Río, it has also occurred here.”

He still has news cuttings from back then, photographs and even a fragment of the meteorite that for the last 25 years has been a kind of amulet. “I have it by my pillow, and until now I have not fallen ill.”

Although scientists recommend being cautious with these objects, Moreira is not the only one who has dared to handle them.

Rainel Rivero, a Pinar del Río local who was at the Mural of Prehistory when several pieces of scorched stones fell from the sky, even dared to lick one to determine its flavor. “Who knows, it might help heal my hypertension,” he joked.

In Viñales Valley, everyone has their own way of telling the story. Dania Coro, a resident of the El Palmar area, recalled that her window shutters shook.

“I looked out and saw a black cloud and a flame in the sky. It was horrible. There was a moment when I didn’t know what to do. I grabbed my daughter and ran with her, because we thought that it was going to fall on us.”

Luis Deulofeu, from the Cuajaní area, confessed that when he heard the noise, he thought a part of his house was collapsing. “Then we heard something fall and we went out to see what it was. We took pictures and touched it. It wasn’t hot. With the impact it had split into several fragments.”

Meanwhile, Osvaldo Gómez, a maintenance worker at the Mural of Prehistory, recalled: “We were at lunch when we heard the detonations, like in a quarry. We thought it was an airplane with problems, but later, when we saw the rocks, I realized that it was a meteorite.”

On the other side of the Sierra de los Órganos, in the city of Pinar del Río, the explosion had also caused windows and walls to shake, and many residents went outside in search of answers.

All kinds of speculation ensued, from an airplane crash, to the explosion of a powder keg. When the news first came that the explosion was due to a meteorite impact in the Viñales area, more than 20 kilometers away, and with several mountains in between, residents here imagined a Dantesque scene there.

However, the valley continued to be as beautiful and peaceful as always when experts from several Citma institutions, the Geophysics Office of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the Ministry of the Interior, arrived to the scene.

Although the shower of rocks covered an area of several kilometers, miraculously there were no injuries or major damage.

José Antonio Valle, president of the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power, stated that there were reports of fragments landing in Los Jazmines, in the town of Viñales, at kilometer 26 of the highway to Puerto Esperanza, in Palmarito, in El Cuajaní, and in Dos Hermanas valley.

“In the El Progreso neighborhood, a crack in the ceiling of one home was caused by the impact of a piece of rock. In Las Maravillas, another of those objects almost fell on a kid’s head, but there has been nothing to lament, fortunately,” he stressed.

Beyond the fright it caused at the time, the meteorite is already being considered a new attraction of this Jurassic valley to which tens of thousands of tourists arrive every year.

DSc Efrén Jaimez noted that, “It is not a frequent event. Which does not mean that the Earth is not constantly bombarded by these objects.”

Engineer and specialist at the IGA, Antonio Alonso, pointed out that in the vast majority of cases, on entering the dense layers of the atmosphere, meteorites are destroyed by air drag and friction.

As such, events such as that which shook Vueltabajo on the afternoon of February 1 are “rare” and “totally unpredictable.”

Interestingly, one of the sites hit by several pieces of the meteorite was the Mural of Prehistory, one of the largest open-air paintings in the world, which depicts evolution from the time of the dinosaurs on the side of a mogote.

Geologist Manuel Vázquez recalled that it was precisely a meteorite that impacted very close to the western region of Cuba, that caused the extinction of those gigantic beings and much of the Earth’s biodiversity 66 million years ago. “For most people it is very difficult to imagine,” he stated.

For that reason, like many others, he believes that the events of February 1 were a new gift of nature for Viñales, which will surely add to the mystique of the valley. Alongside the fossils of extinct animals, cave paintings, and unexplored caverns, Viñales now boasts a fragment of the cosmos.