- Education and Science
Bolt from the Blue: Bizarre Lightning Stories
Mysteries of Lightning
A sudden abrupt lightning bolt coming down from above and hitting the ground is still one of the most awesome spectacles nature has to offer. It is nature at it's most untamed. The crackle and power of a strike makes us glad that we are not where it struck. Others are not so fortunate however. There have been a number of bizarre stories of lightning strikes which have been recorded over the years. Around 2,000 people a year are killed by lightning each year around the world, with about 30 or so of those happening per year in the U.S. Many more are victims of strikes but recover. The highest number of fatalities by strikes occur unsurprisingly during the summer months when more people are in the great outdoors.
There have been a few people who have survived multiple strikes, the best known of which was a former park ranger named Roy Sullivan. The late Mr. Sullivan was struck seven different times during his life. After having his hair caught on fire during a couple of the discharges, Sullivan spent a number of years carrying around a can of water everywhere he went. You can bet that he was probably a bit of a pariah when storm clouds came rolling in since nobody wanted to be near him when the lightning started coming down. Sullivan had spent much of his life outdoors as a park ranger. I believe had I been Mr. Sullivan, I would have gotten an job where I could be inside as much as possible.
Groups Struck by Lightning
You may be wondering who is most at risk of being hit by lightning strikes. The activity most likely to result in death by electrocution is fishing, but outdoors enthusiasts, and sports teams do unsurprisingly tend to get hit more than other people. There are numerous reports of soccer and football players being blasted by lightning. Sometimes whole teams are hit. In 1998, a soccer match in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to an abrupt halt when lightning hit the field and traveled along the ground, killing all 11 members of one team (while not harming any of the opposing players). There were dark rumors of witchcraft and such, but the actual reasons may have been that one team was wearing steel cleats, and the other team plastic.
In 1949 at a amateur baseball game in Baker Florida, a bolt of lightning hit a chicken wire barricade behind home plate and ricocheted into the infield, making a trip round the bases killing the third baseman, shortstop, and second baseman. It is not just people who are affected by lightning salvos. Whole herds of sheep, cows, and reindeer have been wiped out en masse by strikes. Recently 323 reindeer were killed by a discharge traveling along the ground in Norway. Itseems if a firebolt has your name on it, there is no avoiding your fate.
Strange Lightning Deaths
And now we reach the lightning stories that are a bit unnerving. People are killed by lightning every year of course, although sometimes the seeming selectivity of lightning strikes is a bit unnerving. On Memorial Day 1987, an attorney named Graves Thomas was enjoying a day out on his brand new boat. Thomas, a firebrand lawyer who had numerous high profile notorious clients - including police killers, reputed mobsters and drug smugglers, had four friends with him to spend the day on the lake water skiing. The witnesses stated that Thomas moved to the back of the boat, raised his hands skyward, and stated “Here I Am”. A moment afterwards a lightning bolt flashed from the sky and struck Thomas in the head killing him instantly. It's unknown whether Thomas was exclaiming pleasure in his new boat, or simply feeling he had arrived. We do know that he received an completely unexpected answer.
James Otis Jr. was once a well known figure of the pre Revolutionary War era in America, although he has fallen into obscurity today. Otis in speeches and in his writings was one of the foremost agitators for freedom of the American colonies from English rule. His most famous line is “Taxation without representation is tyranny”, which was adopted by the colonials as a motto. Otis had often told his sister that he wished to be dispatched from this earth by lightning. He stated "My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity that it will be by a flash of lightning". He got his wish. In 1783, Otis was standing in the doorway of the Osborn house in Andover Mass., speaking to those in the room, when a single dark cloud appeared in the sky. A bolt of lightning from that cloud hit Otis, killing him instantly. The cloud immediately moved on, and no other lightning strikes were seen.
Rev. T. H. Feagin, a baptist minister was finishing a sermon at a revival meeting in China Texas on July 3rd, 1908, when the unthinkable happened. Rev. Feagin had admonished sinners to repent, and then asked those gathered to come forward and shake hands. As he stepped down to greet his congregation, a lightning bolt came into the church and hit Rev. Feagin resulting in his death. Needless to say this was a stunning event to the churchgoers, and even made the national newspapers. 1908 was apparently a busy year for lightning strikes. During that year in Kansas, a young man was struck by lightning but was miraculously unharmed. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he would go on to become the President of the United States after a distinguished army career.
Healed by Lightning
One of the strangest lightning tales is of an purported healing which was caused by a lightning strike. The story oddly enough does seem to check out. There are a few other similar stories, but they tend to veer more towards folklore, and are unproven. Certainly getting a 10,000 volt wake up call might make some changes to your body.
Edwin Robinson of Falmouth Maine was a truck driver who was involved in a horrific accident in 1971, which robbed him of his sight, and most of his hearing. Nine years later, Robinson went outside in a thunderstorm to find a pet chicken. He stopped to rest with his aluminum cane underneath a tree, where he was promptly struck by lightning which blew the hearing aids right out of his ears. Robinson managed to crawl back to his house, and laid down to rest. When he got up he realized that his sight had returned, as had his hearing. Robinson had been bald for most of his life, but noted that a little hair grew back on his head in the aftermath of this bolt from the blue. An amazing story although I don't think that lightning therapy will become popular anytime soon.
A Bolt from the Blue
Lightning can be fearsome when it is coming down nearby with regularity. However we can feel safe that the odds are in our favor. You have about a 1 in 10,000 chance of being hit by lightning during your lifetime. That doesn't mean to push your friend out towards a tree during a storm to try to lower the odds. It just means not to be caught out in a field, or under a tree when you see a thunderstorm racing inbound overhead. It is certainly much better to read about lightning strikes than being hit by one.