If someone woke you up and said you had been struck by lightning, would you believe it? That’s exactly what happened to me. On June 27, 1998, I was struck by lightning.
My girlfriend (now my wife), Jessica, and two friends, Ali and Brian, were camping at site 69 on a small island in Lake George in upstate New York. We knew there were storms in the forecast, but in those days before smartphones it was much more difficult to understand a storm’s intensity and potential for lightning activity.
Late in the evening, after having dinner in town, we got into our boat and returned to our campsite under the pine trees. I fell asleep quickly.
The next thing I remember, I woke up and saw flashlights outside our tent. At first, I thought the flashlights belonged to a park ranger who was simply checking up on us during the storm.
I soon realized the flashlights belonged to emergency responders who were running toward our campsite.
“Are you OK?” one of the EMTs shouted. I heard a ringing sound in my left ear, like I had been listening to very loud music. I then noticed that Jessica and Ali were gone, and only my friend Brian was in the tent with me. He was still and not breathing.
The EMTs jumped into action, performing CPR on my friend. I grabbed my jacket (which was in the tent with me and had been burned and torn up from the lightning strike, as shown in the photo) and went out into the pouring rain to get out of their way. There was so much lightning the sky was lit up like it was daytime.
Only 25 minutes earlier, at about 3:30 am, a bolt of lightning hit a tree near our campsite. The powerful current traveled underground through the roots of the tree and under the wooden platform beneath our tent. The bolt burned through our tent and our sleeping bags. It then hit all four of us.
The storm kept Jessica and Ali awake. They felt the strike when it hit and knew what happened. Brian and I were both unconscious and convulsing. Although they were badly burned where the lightning had entered and exited their bodies, and they lost all feeling in their legs, they were determined to get help. They crawled out of the tent and made their way, in the driving rain over a path covered in sharp rocks and twisted roots, to the boat. At the boat, they used our cell phone to call 911 to help us.
They waited just 15-20 minutes for the EMTs to arrive, but it must have seemed like an eternity.
The strike also left a fractal burn mark on my back that looked like a spider web. Jessica and Ali were badly bruised and cut from crawling to the boat to get the cell phone. Even worse, they both suffered second- and third-degree burns from the lightning strike.
While we recovered at the hospital, we learned that our friend Brian could not be revived. The EMTs and hospital staff did everything they could, but in the end the lightning took his life. They pronounced him dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Looking back, lightning could have claimed additional lives that night. We heard there were 12 other camping groups on the island, but none were struck.
Your Odds of Getting Hit
Getting struck by lightning is not uncommon. According to NOAA, an average of 53 people are struck and killed by lightning each year in the U.S.
Hundreds more suffer lifelong injuries as a result of a direct or indirect strike. These include hearing loss (the ringing in my ear was, fortunately, temporary) and vision loss (my wife developed a cataract in her left eye one year after the strike, at age 24!).
Now consider this: According to the National Weather Service, your chances of being struck over the course of a lifetime are about 1 in 10,000. In comparison, the odds of picking all 6 numbers and winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 259 million.
With these odds, you may know someone who has been struck. In fact, my dad is a golf professional who witnessed a player on the course get struck and killed. So from an early age, I was taught about the dangers of lightning. And having worked and played on golf courses from the time I was 15, I’ve seen lightning strike nearby. But I was still impacted and my life was changed that day in June.
I still love spending time on the golf course and being outside with my family. But after being struck and losing a friend, lightning safety is something I take personally. I’m committed to sharing my story and helping people understand that lightning can kill.
As we head into severe weather season, I urge you to stay cautious, understand the dangers from lightning and severe weather, and use the weather and lightning tracking technology tools available to you. You just might save someone’s life or even your own.
• NOAA’s lightning safety page has helpful information for all ages: http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov
• The nonprofit organization www.StruckbyLightning.org offers tips for helping someone who has been struck by lightning.
• WeatherBug’s Spark feature delivers minute-by-minute, mile-by-mile lightning strike information so you can enjoy the outdoors and stay safer. Learn more on our Spark page. Download WeatherBug for iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8.
Brian Smack is a manager for WeatherBug Club Safety at Earth Networks. He is also a former PGA golf professional.