Tenants battle for custody of rock that fell from the sky
Late last month Marc Gallini got out of his chair in his medical examination room when a chunk of meteorite smashed through the roof and hit the spot where he would have been sitting, had a patient not just cancelled his appointment.
"It just wasn't my time, I guess," Dr Gallini said. His partner, Frank Ciampi, described the moment the tennis-ball-sized piece of rock hit the building in northern Virginia as "like an explosion went off".
There the tale of a lucky escape might have ended, but the doctors' landlord heard of the incident. The meteorite is now at the centre of a legal struggle involving the doctors, the landlord, and one of the country's leading museum and research bodies.
"Once we discovered what it was, our first instinct was to donate the meteorite to the Smithsonian Institution," Dr Ciampi said.
They were offered a $5,000 (€3,650) finder's fee by the organisation, which houses nearly half of the 27,000 meteorites in collections around the world.
"We wanted to donate the money to Haiti," he added. "We even talked to [our landlord] and he thought donating the money was a great idea."
Before long, Dr Ciampi said, "meteorite hunters started showing up".
According to one, Steve Arnold of a cable television show called 'Meteorite Men', the meteorite could fetch between $25,000 (€18,250) and $50,000 (€36,500) -- at which point the owners of the building suddenly became interested.
The doctors received an email from the landlord, Erol Mutlu, saying that his brother, Deniz, was on his way to the Smithsonian to claim the rock.
In a subsequent email claiming ownership of the meteorite, 'The Washington Post' reported, Mr Mutlu wrote: "The courts have ruled that a meteorite becomes part of the land where it arrives through 'natural cause' and the property of the landowner; the notion of 'finders keepers' has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Oregon."
The doctors hired a lawyer to contact the Smithsonian to prevent release of the rock until ownership had been established. The two sides are at a stand-off and are apparently determined to take the issue to court.
Tim McCoy, a mineral sciences curator at the Smithsonian, said that the rock contained "the primitive stuff left over from the birth of the solar system".
The museum is staying out of the row, but using the time that it has the meteorite, which comes from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, to study it.
Dr Ciampi said that he was "praying it all gets settled quickly and [the meteorite] stays at the Smithsonian". (© The Times, London)