U.S. News

02.17.13

‘It Came From the Sky!’ The Meteorite That Mangled the Malibu

When Marie Knapp’s teenage daughter told her, “I think a meteorite hit my car,” she was telling the truth, Michael Daly reports.

Eighteen-year-old Michelle Knapp was alone in her family’s home in Peekskill, New York, that October day in 1992 when they heard a loud noise outside.

She saw nothing when she stepped onto the front deck and might have just gone back inside when a guy from down the street called out.

“You have a big hole in the trunk of your car!”

The car was a red 1980 Chevy Malibu that had handed down to her just a few days before, and it was parked nose first in the driveway. She circled around to the rear and saw that something had indeed smashed in the trunk and punched a considerable hole in it.

What could have done the damage remained a mystery when a police officer arrived. He suggested that somebody might have thrown a rock at the car. Everybody just looked at him, for such a feat clearly would have required Superman himself.

Even so, that seemed no less improbable than what a nearly blind elderly neighbor was saying.

"It came from the sky!”

Then somebody discovered a rock the size of a broad loaf under the smashed end of the car. The police consulted with a geologist. Michelle relayed the possible explanation when she called her mother at a local bowling alley to say the Malibu seemed to have been in an accident.

“I think a meteorite fell on my car.”

The mother, Marie Knapp, had trouble hearing over the din of the bowlers and the toppling pins.

“What are you telling me?” the mother recalls asking.

“I think a meteorite fell on my car,” the daughter repeated.

The mother was as dubious as any teenager’s parent likely would have been.

“Oh, Michelle, tell me what happened,” the mother recalls saying, as in what really happened.

The mother would later add, “I thought she was full of malarkey.”

The mother arrived home to see the Superman-size hole and the big smooth rock.

“It was really true,” she says.

The mother was all the more amazed when she surveyed the scene with the eye of a bowler who had just been summoning her full experience and skill to deliver a ball to a particular spot at the end of a 60-foot alley. The meteor had somehow plummeted straight down though the narrow space separating the Knapp home from their next-door neighbor's house to strike the car.

“From billions of miles away,” the mother says. “And to land in the back of the car. What are the odds of that?”

“From billions of miles away,” the mother says. “And to land in the back of the car. What are the odds of that?”

This meteorite with aim any bowler would envy weighed some 30 pounds and had been part of much larger object estimated to have been between and 2 and 25 tons that had been spotted in West Virginia glowing as bright as a full moon, but with a greenish tint. Thousands of people had seen it, and at least 16 had videotaped it, but nobody could have guessed where the pieces might land after it fragmented.

Just a fender-bender can draw rubberneckers. News that a fragment had totaled a Malibu brought hordes of meteorite buffs and curiosity seekers. One man stood on the gravel driveway and made an offer.

“He pulls out a paper bag and says, 'I'll give you $200 if you let me fill this paper bag with your gravel,” the mother recalls.  “I said, ‘Go ahead and knock yourself out.’”

Word also reached the company that was insuring the Malibu.

“They called me and said they wouldn’t cover it,” the mother recalls.

Fortunately, the wife of a New York space rock and fossil dealer sent a message through an intermediary that she wanted to surprise her husband by giving him the meteorite Malibu, in addition to buying a chunk of the meteorite itself. She made the purchase with a wire transfer and arranged for the car to be transported to their home.

“I had told my husband to expect a surprise,” says the wife, Iris Langheinrich.

Whatever Allan Langheinrich expected, it was not an aged, battered Malibu.

“Are you kidding me? This car is all dented in and broken,” the wife recalls him saying.

She adds, “It was like, ‘Holy smoke, my wife is crazy, but I love her.’”

The wife had seen a clip on TV about Bonnie and Clyde’s car. “Famous because the car was all shot up with bullets," she notes.

She figured the Malibu could also become a celebrity auto, and they exhibited the Peekskill meteorite car everywhere from the American Museum of Natural History in New York to a mineral show in Tokyo.

“People will do anything when it comes to curiosity,” the wife says.

In the aftermath of Friday’s reminders of just what a bad neighborhood the universe can be—the meteor shower in Siberia, the much-bigger asteroid that came just 15 minutes away from landing here, and the fireball over California attributed to a “sporadic meteor” —The Daily Beast reached Iris Langheinrich in Florida. She said she and Allen were on vacation, and would not be dashing off to Siberia to add to their meteorite memorabilia, but her husband was nonetheless staying active.

“He’s at the beach now with a metal detector, believe it or not,” she said.  “We don’t lead a boring life.”

Back in Peekskill, Marie Knapp reported that her daughter had been able to buy another car with the proceeds from selling the only Chevy wrecked by a rock from outer space. The bowler in the mother still marvels at how that meteor passed between the two houses to strike the Malibu.

“That is truly amazing,” she says.