You’d think that getting struck by lightning even once and living to tell about it would be a miracle. Lightning is an electrostatic discharge during an electrical storm between electrically charged regions of a cloud (known as intra-cloud lightning or IC lightning), or another cloud,( called CC lightning), or a cloud and the ground, (called CG lightning). Say what? What that means is that a cloud carries an electric storm now and then. On occasion an electric storm escapes a cloud, or it interacts with another cloud or with the ground. Within these storms are electrically charged regions where electrostatic discharge escapes in the form of lightning. This also happens when electrostatic discharge hits the ground. When that happens the atmosphere and the charged region equalize and you get a lightning strike if it hits an object on the ground. And you thought clouds were like fluffy white poodles in the sky.
Lightning lasts about 30 microseconds. Its frequency is about 40 – 50 times a second. In general, cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning flashes account for only 25% of all total lightning flashes worldwide. Incredibly, lightning is five times hotter than the sun’s surface. It reaches temperatures as high as 53,540 degrees Farenheit. Mind you, the sun’s core has it all over lightning, being 27 million degrees Farenheit.
Lightning strikes on the human body are extremely damaging and can lead to fatalities. 80% of survivors sustain long-term damage. Nerves and muscles may be directly by the high voltage. In a direct strike, the electrical currents pass directly through the victim. When lightning strikes the head it passes into the body through openings in the skull. The eyes, mouth and nose are entry portals with conductive nerve tracts. The bolt of electricity can destroy brain cells indiscriminately. One estimate is that between 6,000 and 24,000 people are killed by lightning strikes around the world each year (that’s quite a variable) and about 240,000 are injured. Trees are often conductors of lightning to the ground. Sap is a poor conductor of electricity and its electrical resistance causes it to be heated explosively into steam, which blows off the tree’s bark. Ouch. If no one is around to hear that, does it still make a sound?
Imagine getting hit by lightning on even one occasion. You might be left with muscle and nerve damage or severe burns on your body. Roy Sullivan, a park ranger in Virginia, knew about lightning strikes in a very personal manner. He was a human lightning rod and was struck by lightning not once, not twice, but on seven occasions. In fact he was interviewed on television about the accidents and was added to the Guinness Book of World Records as having survived the most lightning strikes, one of which left the nasty scar on Sullivan’s back, known as a Lichtenberg figure, in the enclosed picture. Technically Sullivan was hit eight times, since he was also struck in his childhood, but he didn’t include it in the total since his family never reported it.
Here is a chronological, and painful, list.
- The first documented lightning strike of Sullivan occurred in April 1942. He was hiding from a thunderstorm in a fire lookout tower. The tower had no lightning rod ; it was hit seven or eight times. Inside the tower, “fire was jumping all over the place“. Sullivan ran out and a few feet away received what he considered to be his worst lightning strike. It burned a half-inch strip all along his right leg, hit his toe, and left a hole in his shoe.
- He was hit again in July 1969. Unusually, he was hit while in his truck. Normally the metal body of a vehicle protects people. The lightning hit nearby trees and was deflected into the open window of the truck. The strike knocked Sullivan unconscious, burned off his eyebrows, eyelashes, and most of his hair. The uncontrolled truck kept moving until it stopped near a cliff edge. I guess it wasn’t his time.
- In 1970, Sullivan was struck while in his front yard. The lightning hit a power transformer and jumped to his left shoulder, searing it. Ouch.
- In 1972, Sullivan was inside a ranger station in Shenandoah National Park when another strike occurred. It set his hair on fire. He tried to smother the flames with his jacket then rushed to the restroom, but couldn’t fit under the water tap and used a wet towel. After the fourth strike he believed that some force was trying to destroy him and he acquired a fear of death. For months, whenever he was caught in a storm while driving his truck, he pulled over and lay down on the front seat until the storm passed. He also carried a can of water with him and believed that he would attract lightning even if he stood in a crowd of people. You can’t blame him for that.
- On August 7, 1973, while he was out on patrol in the park, Sullivan saw a storm cloud forming and drove away quickly. He said the cloud seemed to be following him. Eventually he left his truck and was struck by a lightning bolt. The lightning set his hair on fire, moved down his left arm and left leg and knocked off his shoe. It then crossed over to his right leg just below the knee. Still conscious, Sullivan crawled to his truck and poured the can of water, which he always kept there, over his head. It seemed the watering can had come in handy.
- The next strike, on June 5, 1976, injured his ankle. It was reported that he saw a cloud, thought that it was following him, tried to run away, but was struck anyway.
- On Saturday morning, June 25, 1977, Sullivan was struck while fishing in a freshwater pool. The lightning hit the top of his head, singed his hair, traveled down, and burnt his chest and stomach. Sullivan couldn’t get a break. He returned to his car when a bear approached the pond and tried to steal trout from his fishing line. That must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back; Sullivan hit the bear with a tree branch. He claimed that this was the twenty-second time he hit a bear with a stick in his lifetime. Perhaps he should have stood beside it and let a lightning bolt hit the bear instead.
- All seven strikes were documented by the Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, R. Taylor Hoskins, and verified by doctors. Sullivan recalled that the first time he was struck by lightning was not in 1942 but much earlier, when he was a child. He was helping his father to cut wheat in a field, when a thunderbolt struck the blade of his scythe without injuring him. He didn’t report it in case he wasn’t believed. Oh, I don’t know. I think Sullivan’s account would have been accepted without an inquiry.
- Sullivan’s wife was also struck once, when a storm suddenly arrived as she was out hanging clothes in their back yard. Her husband was helping her at the time, but escaped unharmed.
Statisticians believe that it was the nature of Sullivan’s work that made him so vulnerable to lightning strikes. Over time people avoided Sullivan during electrical storms and this depressed him. As soon as a storm began, people left Sullivan alone. Ironically, it wasn’t lightning that ended Sullivan’s life. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 71 over an unrequited love. His wife left him after decades of marriage and Sullivan never recovered. Sullivan survived grievous physical injuries to his body caused by lightning during his lifetime, but it was a broken heart that killed him.
Sullivan certainly isn’t the only person to survive a lightning strike, and even more than one. There is a Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors support group, that even has an international conference, for people who have survived the experience. During the conference people who have been hit by lightning or received a serious electrical shock come together to discuss their experiences. Many of these people have permanent injuries.
- Steve has gone through 38 operations.
- Marianne feels disoriented and walks into tables and door frames.
- Linda was hit by lightning four times in 24 years.*(from Spiegel Online International).
Oddly the most common lament is that most people don’t believe them, since lightning strikes don’t always leave visible scars. One man is now slow in the head and easily confused. Another man cannot feel the cold; he sees his arms turning blue before he puts on a jacket. A woman spoke about how lightning changed her personality, making her more irritable, high-strung and hypersensitive. “I look at myself and feel like I’m looking at a stranger.”