DEPUTATSKOYE, Russia - Larisa V. Briyukova had been wondering what to do with the fist-size stone she found under a hole in the roof tiles of her woodshed. On Monday, a stranger knocked on her door, offering about $60 for the space material, Briyukova said. After some haggling, they settled on a price of $230.
A few hours later, another man pulled up, looked at the hole in the roof and offered $1,300.
"Now I regret selling it," said Briyukova, a 43-year-old homemaker. "But then, who knows? The police might have come and taken it away anyway."
On Friday, terror rained from the skies in Siberia. By Monday, what fell from the sky had turned to pure gold for some people, and it touched off a rush to retrieve the meteor's fragments, many buried in deep February snows.
Many of those out prospecting looked a lot like Sasha Zarezina, 8, who happily plunged into a snowbank here in this village of 1,000, laughing, kicking and throwing up plumes of powder.
Then she stopped, bent over and started to dig. "I found one!" she yelled.
A warm breath and a rub on her pants later, a small black pebble, oval like a river rock, charred and smooth, was freed of ice.
Although trade in material from meteorites is largely illegal, there is a flourishing global market, with fragments widely available for sale on the Internet, usually at modest prices. At least one from the recent meteor was available on eBay on Monday for $32, and there is a website called Star-bits.com devoted to the trade - much to the displeasure of scientists and the countries where the objects were found.
Early on, NASA reported that the largest known celestial body to enter Earth's atmosphere in 100 years was an airburst fireball that would shower untold thousands of fragments onto the surface.
In the scramble now under way to find them, residents of towns like Deputatskoye - founded in the 1920s around a collective dairy farm that is now defunct - are looking for small holes in the snow that hold the promise of yielding polished black rocks encased in tiny clumps of ice, formed from the last expiring heat of their long journey.
M3-Media, a financial news site, reported that under Russian law a person can gain legal title to a meteorite, but only if it is reported to the authorities and submitted to a laboratory for tests. The laboratory will charge 20 percent of the estimated value of the object for certification, the site reported, citing the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In practice, though, the search for remnants has become a haphazard, unregulated scramble, wholly lacking coordinated effort or scientific oversight in the collection of specimens from one of the most significant events in years for the community of scientists who study such things.
"We don't have a mechanism to prevent this from happening," said Victor Grokhovsky, an assistant professor of metallurgy at Southern Ural Federal University, one of the scientists who made the positive identification of meteorites on Monday.
Law enforcement agencies actually blocked scientists from visiting a suspected impact site on Lake Chebarkul over the weekend, Grokhovsky said. Yet here at Deputatskoye, where the first scientific expedition is planned for Tuesday, not a police officer was in sight.
"It would be nice if the government coordinated with us, the scientists," Grokhovsky said. "When we want to be somewhere, they won't let us near. When we want them to be somewhere, they are nowhere to be found."
The fragments landed in a social landscape of distrust of authorities, where police corruption is widespread.
With word of the rising prices rippling through the village, some women, looking with piercing, paranoid eyes at strangers, refused to speak about what their children might have found. Others expressed fear that the police would confiscate the stones - and in turn sell them.
"Nobody knows anything; nobody says anything," one said.
Another said, unconvincingly, "We threw our stones away."
'PILES OF THESE'
Alfia N. Zharkova, a mother of two who has a plastic bag filled with black stones, said in an interview in her kitchen that pieces of the meteor "fell everywhere in the village. The children find them. Everybody who has children has piles of these."
She found one Friday.
"I went out to feed the cow and I see a hole in the ice," Zharkova said. "And there's a stone in the hole. So I just reach down and pick it up."
A neighbor, Alexandra Gerasimova, a 61-year-old retired milkmaid, said a meteorite tore a hole in her coat, which she displayed Monday. She was wearing it Friday when she stepped outside to investigate the flash in the sky.
"I was standing with my husband, and some of it fell on us," Gerasimova said. "This rock fell down and into my jacket. I felt it hit me. I looked up, and there was nothing above me, not a bird, nothing. Imagine how frightened I was."
On Monday, two men, apparently speculators, showed up at her house and offered to buy her stone.
"I didn't open the door," she said. "Why should I sell it? I have a grandson I will give it to."