For Cincinnati, Ohio-based Deputy Sheriff Robert Michael Wagner, a spirited canoe trip as a 17-year-old with a cousin and four friends became a life altering experience when the group found itself in a violent storm on the banks of a favorite Kentucky creek. “The rain progressed and got harder and harder,” said Wagner, now 41. “We were in the middle of nowhere and it never let up. I’d never seen lightning like that in my life.”
Acknowledging the life-and-death scenario in which they’d found themselves, Wagner recalled the group quickly paddled close to shore, jumped out, and attempted to drag their boats through a foot of water to the bank. When a lightning bolt hit a nearby tree, traveled down, pierced the water with “spider tentacles” and struck every one of them, the future deputy sheriff said he felt his heart race and saw literally every hair on his body stand up. “I had my keys in the bottom of my tennis shoe so as not to lose them in the water,” he recalled, noting the strike charred the imprint of the keys into his shoe. “I’ve not been canoeing since,” Wagner confessed.
According to fulminologists (those who study lightning) at The National Lightning Detection Network, an average of about 20,000,000 cloud-to-ground lightning flashes, which are the best known and second most common type of lightning, occur every year in this country.
Around the world, lightning strikes the ground about 100 times per second, or 8 million times a day. Traveling at a speed of 140,000 mph, temperatures exceed 50,000 degrees (five times hotter than the sun’s surface) and as many as 200 million volts of electricity are delivered by lightning.
The National Weather Service puts the odds of being struck in one’s lifetime at 1 in 3,000, and though fatalities are low, an average of 58 per year are reported in the U.S. out of about 400 strike victims.
In the state of Florida, first in the nation for lightning strikes, Dr. Wayne Cruse, Professor of Surgery at the University of South Florida and Assistant Medical Director at Tampa General Hospital’s Regional Burn Center, has seen his share of victims. “Most strikes on people are not direct hits,” he said, indicating they are mitigated by water, trees, pipes and other materials that conduct them. “If they are direct, pulmonary or cardiac arrest, or injury to the brainstem, are usually imminent, and the victim doesn’t survive,” he explained. Noting that injuries from non-direct lightning strikes are variable and may include lung and spinal cord injuries, arrhythmias (when the charge goes through the heart), cataracts, memory loss, chronic pain, burns, neurological problems and extreme psychological and behavioral changes (an increase in divorce rate among strike victims has been cited), Dr. Cruse said it is critical to remember that if respiratory arrest has occurred as a result of the strike, prolonged (30—60 minutes) CPR can often resuscitate the victim. And while effects from lightning strikes can last indefinitely, according to statistics some victims report a return to normal function and activities within days or even hours of contact.
For Anna West, 54, of Beacon, NY, a tranquil evening with her first husband on a Pennsylvania porch 20 years ago became a nightmare of movie script proportions when the couple became dual victims of a strike. “Scott and I always used to watch storms,” West said of the incident, recalling the instant lightning struck a nearby light pole, the current careening along the ground to reach them on the porch. “In that second, we could just feel something was going to happen–it must have been that we felt the current,” she said, adding the two were in mid-rise from their chairs. “We were frozen in place: I could see him and he could see me –terrified–our hair straight out–his clothes and beard pushed out,” West described the scene, affirming they both ultimately collapsed. Because neither could hear for hours after the occurrence, West said they passed notes back and forth considering an emergency room visit but deciding against it later that night. In ensuing years hearing loss has been identified for West, but doctors don’t readily attribute it to being struck by lightning: She admits to having listened to very loud music for prolonged periods of time. “Scott, who has also registered some hearing loss over the years, was in a rock band,” West said, “so doctors really can’t say if lightning was a contributing factor.”
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