From the ABC 7 Weather team

Survivors of lightning strikes recount their horrible ordeals

June 21, 2011 - 07:00 AM
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Shoes blown off. Ear drums busted. Red "ferns" burned into skin. A new ESP ability. Celebrate Lightning Safety Week with these tales from strike survivors.

Lightning during August, 2005 thunderstorms in southern Romania. (Mircea Madau)

Kevin was getting into his car in Texas when something horrible happened.

“Just as I stuck the key in the car door lock, my wife heard a LOUD BOOM!” he says. “After she had a moment to recover from that, she looked the direction I was standing and no longer saw me standing there. She looked farther back, behind the two vehicles and saw me lying there on my back, eyes wide open, hand clinched, and convulsing.”

Kevin’s wife later took off his shoes and noticed that both of his socks had quarter-sized holes burned through them. Since his lightning strike, he reports feeling “headaches, pain, numbness” and, perhaps above all, “anger.”

This week is Lightning Safety Week. Big whoop, you say? Well, maybe the following unnerving accounts from lightning-strike survivors will make you care.

In the past two summers in D.C., lightning has killed a boy on a ball field, a man in a park and a jet-ski rider on the Chesapeake Bay. Bolts have injured many more. The National Weather Service is urging everyone this week to pay heed to this maxim: “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!”

So far, there have been five reported lightning fatalities in 2011. This month, lightning has killed an attorney golfing in Shreveport, La.; a 13-year-old boy baling hay in Sadsbury (no kidding) Township, Penn.; a farmer feeding his animals in Durham County, N.C.; and a rancher helping conduct a “branding party” in Montana (his horse was also electrocuted).

In May, 32-year-old police officer Jeff Taylor was conducting rescue efforts after an EF-5 tornado destroyed Joplin, Mo., when lightning electrified the ground beneath his feet. Says the City of Riverside's website:

Taylor was part of Riverside’s 12-member contingent of police officers, firefighters and public works staff members who responded to the Joplin tornado disaster. On the evening after the tornado, as a new line of storms moved through the Joplin area, Taylor had just returned to a command post when lightning struck the ground near where he was working.

Public Safety workers on the scene performed CPR and stabilized him for further treatment. He underwent successful skin graft surgery and was being treated for other complications when he died. Family members were at his side when he died at 9:25 a.m. on June 3, 2011, at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Mo.

Many more folks will no doubt perish under thunderbolts in the coming months. On average, 55 people die in the U.S. each year after being struck by lightning; due to underreporting, the real total is probably in the 70s. And those numbers underplay the number of survivors living with crippling disabilities. Lightning only kills about 10 percent of the people it hits.

Weighted for population, New Mexico ranks first in lightning fatalities with 1.23 deaths per million people, followed by Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida. Washington, D.C., is No. 43 on the list, deadlier than New York but safer than Rhode Island. If you’re a betting person, the odds of getting zapped in your lifetime are 1 in 10,000. Here is a map showing which states are more prone to attacks from Zeus:

lightning strikes by state

And here's where it gets personal. Below are chilling stories submitted to NOAA from those unlucky enough to win the lightning lottery. You can read others at the website of the Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International.

Dave, from Florida. (Struck while on a dock.)

One minute I was walking along fine and the next I wasn't sure which way was up or down and I seemed to be spinning. I also recall what seemed to be a period of time when all I could see was a white or gray color. It seemed to me as though I was almost flying.

Then I saw a bright flash at which point I suspect I landed on the dock. I could not move at all but my eyes were open and my head was tilted at an angle. I was told afterward it started raining very hard but I could not feel anything. I could see blood dripping down across my eyes but could not close them….

Like another survivor had described on this page, I can now "feel" lightning before it strikes. I am certain of this…. If you are unfortunate enough to experience lightning first-hand, you very likely will regret it every single day for the rest of your life.

Missy, location unknown. Zapped through the phone line.

So, there I was, calling in a carryout pizza order, when I noticed that the lightning and thunder was getting more intense, and coming more frequently. Then I heard static on the phone line, which kept getting louder and louder. Then I heard what sounded like a loud explosion, and at the same time I notice a bright white light at my feet, which was football shaped, and had spikes. It blew me across the floor, and I was knocked out for a few seconds….

After the strike I notice a strange side effect. It's almost as if I get Extrasensory Perception (ESP), every once in a while. There have been times where I speak someone's name, someone that I haven't been heard from or seen in MANY years and all of a sudden, they walk in the door. Or, the time I KNEW my plumbing was going to back up in the laundry room. And sure enough, that night, it happened…. Most people that know me are amazed. And so am I.

Mike, in Cape Cod. Hit while golfing.

They turned to see me stumble to the ground, smoke coming from my body. When they reached me, I was laying in a lifeless heap, similar to a broken doll. My hair and eyebrows were burnt, my zipper blown open, my shoes had been blown off, a hole in the ground marking the spot. At this point I had suffered cardiac arrest, had no pulse and my chances for survival were something between slim and nil.

Dick kept forcing air into my lungs, stopping only to roll my head so he could clear my airwaves by pulling the raw onions leftover from lunch out of my mouth. He was quoted as saying "somebody better remember to tell this sob what I am doing for him". Not fond of onions before he certainly doesn't like them now.

Hope, from Omaha, Neb. Cooked at a concert.

It was about a half hour into the storm that my grandmother recalls hearing what she calls a "blood curtailing scream" coming from me as she looked over to see me lifted from about 6 inches off the ground and dropped back down again. At first she though I had just become scared and jumped as she could tell that the lightning had struck not to far away. Then as I continually repeated "my teeth feel like they are going to shatter and my hair feels like it is going to fall out," she realized that in the position I had been sitting in it would have been impossible for me to jump. It was then that the reality of how close the lightning had really hit set in....

In the police bus the entrance wound was determined to be my right foot. There my big toe nail was now missing. The exit would was a scar on my face where a year and a half earlier I had surgery. The scar on my face was bright red. When the paramedic touched it he immediately jerked his hand away and said "ow." My scar was hot enough to burn his fingers.

Nathalie, from Boston. Taken out on a boat in the bay.

A burning pain spread through my front torso that was excruciating. I screamed in agony while collapsing, letting go of the tiller and the origin of the tremendous burning sensation that felt like it was coming from deep inside my body then I couldn’t breathe anymore. Three times at least I was trying to inhale air but nothing was reacting within my chest, while my brain smelled my own flesh burning. All I was thinking was, "We’ve been hit. I’m burning, but that’s OK people can live even if they are badly burned. I need to breathe. I can’t give up. I need to breath.”

It would have been so easy then to just let go instead and no longer suffer the agonizing burning pain. After the 4th try of breathing, it came back, the lung muscles were responding again. I then fell on the plastic bench on my left side, adopting a fetal position no longer hearing from my right ear - the side facing the tiller, but it came back later in the ER.… Everybody there admired the “fern” patterns on my torso where the electrons entered my body. (Picture of somebody else’s amazing back ferns. Another one here.)

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