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For a Moment in Russia, Gold Falls From the Sky

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MOSCOW — Yakutsk, a city 5,000 miles from Moscow where temperatures can plummet to minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit, is not the sort of place where people normally spend winter nights searching the bushes by torch light. But it is not every day that 3.4 tons of gold falls out of the sky.

The unusual scene unfolded this week after a door on a Soviet-era cargo plane sprang open on takeoff, spewing dozens of what seemed to be gold bars into the frosty air. (They turned out to be doré, a semi-pure alloy composed of gold and silver, not pure gold, but close enough.)

The Antonov AN-12’s lower hatch was forced open when more than nine tons of precious metal, worth a reported $156 million, broke loose on takeoff, Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.

News reports of gold from the sky spread like wildfire, prompting an outpouring on social media. One widely shared image showed a screenshot from a ride-sharing app: “Yakutsk airport,” read the request. “Need a Toyota Probox-style estate car. Three 200 kilograms sacks. URGENT!!! Payment: a half-kilo of gold.”

The wayward cargo appeared to have landed on the runway; a total of 172 bars weighing 3.4 tons were retrieved there, an official told TASS. But that did not stop the curious and the rapacious from pouring into the area surrounding the airport — by then cordoned off by the authorities — in a frenzied search for contraband riches.

They were buoyed by conflicting reports, as an official statement that all the cargo had been retrieved collided with a warning that anyone who found a gold bar and failed to report it would be prosecuted. By Friday afternoon, some hopeful residents could still be seen scouring a nearby field. “Such things can only happen here,” one Instagram user said as he drove past.