People who are struck by lighting stand a surprisingly good chance of surviving, but then often end up with mysterious ailments. Lightning strike survivors are holding a world conference in a bid to overcome their trauma.
Nine out of 10 people hit by lightning survive.
Nine out of 10 people hit by lightning survive.
The survivors stand up, one by one, and tell their stories. Steve has gone through 38 operations. Marianne still feels disoriented and walks into tables and doorframes. Mike doesn’t need crutches any more. Linda is so overcome by her tears that she can barely speak. She was hit by lightning four times in 24 years.
These tales take up half the morning in a dimly lit hotel conference room in Pigeon Forge, not far from the Dollywood theme park that has put this remote town in Tennessee on the map. The town’s main drag is home to a long string of tourist attractions, from amusement arcades to bumper cars to carnival-like attractions, including a replica of a mine complete with a man-made stream, where visitors enthusiastically dig through buckets of gravel — at $35 apiece — to search for semiprecious stones.
The Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International World Conference taking place down a side street sounds like yet another attraction — a particularly eccentric freak show, perhaps.
Most people would assume that almost all a lightning strike leaves behind is a small pile of ashes. In fact, dying from a lighting strike is relatively uncommon. Mary Ann Cooper, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, estimates that nine out of 10 people struck by lightning survive.
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Cooper, one of a handful of experts in the field of lightning research, is a member of the board of the self-help association that organizes the survivors’ conference each year. The association has 1,400 members, including many from countries other than the United States. They all share the experience of being overlooked, despite sometimes being severely injured, while most of the focus is on those killed by lightning. There are rare exceptions, such as the recent incident at a soccer match in the northern German city of Wenden, when three girls survived a single lightning strike. But this sort of thing is more commonplace than miraculous. The truly lucky ones are those who don’t suffer any long-term damage.
The more than 100 survivors who have gathered in Pigeon Forge weren’t quite so lucky. They report mysterious pains, panic attacks and bouts of severe confusion, and the challenge of convincing the rest of the world to believe them. Lightning rarely causes noticeable burn scars, so that few victims have any physical evidence to back up their stories. “This conference is the only place,” says association member Jim Segneri, “where I can answer truthfully when someone asks me how I’m doing.” The meeting lasts three days, and it features helpful presentations by experts and a vote for the “Survivor of the Year.”
At last year’s conference that distinction went to Linda Cooper, the woman who has been struck by lightning four times. She was struck the first time 24 years ago in front of a post office, the second time while making a phone call at home, the third time while washing dishes (the lightning traveled from the sink to her arms) and the last time through an open car window. This is a lot, even for someone from Florida, where lightning strikes about 40 times per square kilometer each year (in Germany it rarely exceeds four). But there are people who have been struck by lightning even more often. The current record holder is Roy Sullivan, a park ranger from Virginia who has since died — he was hit by lighting seven times.
The first time she was hit Linda Cooper lost her memory. A teacher, she was no longer able to solve even simply arithmetic problems. It took Cooper 10 years to fully regain her capacity for thought. But then, as she says, “lighting hit me the second time.”
For most people in the room, one lightning strike was enough. Large, powerful-looking men tremble when they tell their stories, even if it happened years ago.
One man complains that he has been “devastated” since his lightning strike, and that he is now slow in the head and easily confused. Another man has lost the ability to feel cold. He says that he has to see his arms turning blue before he puts on a jacket. A woman talks 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,” she says.
Renee Tressler remembers that the sky turned a greenish, poisonous-looking color. She was in her car driving to work, in a hurry because she was running late. She opened the window to dry her hair. The lightning struck her without warning “like a jack hammer hitting my teeth,” she says. “It was the loudest bang I’ve ever heard.” It happened years ago, but Tressler, a former medical technician, has had trouble concentrating ever since, and her right lower leg is shrinking. She now walks with a cane.
The effects of lightning differ from one person to the next and are completely unpredictable. But the one thing all victims have in common is that, for fractions of a second, the body is exposed to an electric charge of up to tens of thousands of amperes — enough electricity to power billions of light bulbs for a split second. The damage depends on the path the current seeks as it passes through the body to the ground.
Australian scientists performing experiments with sheep showed that when lightning strikes the head it often passes into the body through openings in the skull. The eyes, mouth and nose are moist entry portals with highly conductive nerve tracts. The bolt of electricity can destroy brain cells indiscriminately. In some people it paralyzes the respiratory center in the brain stem, while higher cerebral functions are destroyed in others. Memory loss is common. Association member Jerry LeDoux prides himself on the fact that at least he can hide his own Easter eggs.
At the moment of a lightning strike, the motor system is also exposed to considerable stress. The shock causes the muscles to contract so severely that bones sometimes break or become dislodged from the sockets.
In the summer of 1969, Steve Marshburn was sitting near the drive-up teller window at the bank where he worked, stamping deposit tickets when lightning struck him in the back with horrific force. When he regained consciousness his legs were numb and he was no longer capable of speech. “But I stayed at work for the rest of the day,” says Marshburn. His coworkers thought he seemed a bit agitated but otherwise fine. “It was only the next day that they found out that the lighting had broken my spine,” he says.
Marshburn spent the next 15 years trying to gain recognition as a lightning victim, going from doctor to doctor and enduring one operation after the next. He established his association in the early 1990s and convened its first world conference. Since then he has talked 17 lightning victims out of committing suicide, and his own survival has also been a challenge. “But most of the time,” he says, “I’m vertical.”
Marshburn has few external symptoms. As devastating as it is, a lightning strike rarely leaves behind visible evidence. Deeper burns occur in less than 5 percent of cases, says physician Cooper. Instead, burns are more typical of electric shock, with which lightning strikes are often incorrectly equated.
Survivors of electric shock are also welcome in Pigeon Forge. Brian Sheldrake, for example, travels to the meetings in his huge van, which he steers with his legs. He lost both arms to a high-voltage power line.
In the case of electric shock, the current alternates its direction 60 times a second, causing a sudden lockjaw. The victim is stuck to the conductor and is often unable to let go. This is what causes the burns.
Lightning works in a completely different way. The whole thing takes a few milliseconds, enough time for three, four or five discharges, which strike along a lightning bolt’s characteristic jagged track. Because the skin is a relatively poor conductor of current, a phenomenon known as flashover occurs, which saves the lives of most victims. Most of the electric charge shoots across the body’s surface to the ground.
It happened to Mike Utley on the golf course. He was thrown from his shoes like a rocket, and by the time his body hit the ground his heart had already stopped. Other golfers who came to his assistance saw vapor rising from his body.
The red-hot air in a jagged bolt of lightning is heated to up to 30,000 degrees Celsius (54,032 degrees Fahrenheit) for a split-second. Sweat and rain water on the skin explode instantly at this temperature. Sometimes this explosion of moisture rips the victim’s clothing and shoes from his body. Burns, if any, are usually the result of scalding from the suddenly heated steam.
There is only one way lightning causes immediate death: When, as in Utley’s case, it causes the heartbeat, which is controlled by electrical impulses, to come to a standstill. Emergency medical personnel managed to revive Utley, but he spent four weeks in a coma. After that Utley, once an avid windsurfer, ice sailor and downhill skier, had to painstakingly relearn simple things like swallowing and moving his toes.
Years after the accident, he is still plagued by sharp pain and a tingling in his arms, coupled with a loss of sensation in his legs. “I sometimes notice bloody footsteps behind me,” says Utley, “without having felt anything at all.”
But in a sense Utley is better off than other survivors. The effects of the lightning strike are apparent, there were a number of witnesses and, as a former successful businessman and vice president of a large bank, he has the credibility to escape suspicions of being nothing but a complaining hypochondriac. But even Utley faces growing skepticism and irritation. “People think I should be getting over it by now.”
Even doctors are not necessarily sympathetic. Because lightning strikes are so rare, very few physicians are able to recognize the symptoms. “They always want to see the entry wound and the exit wound,” says association member Marianne Adams. But this presents a problem when so much of the damage barely even shows up on instruments.
“The vegetative nervous system is especially susceptible,” says Ingo Kleiter, a neurologist at the university hospital in the southern German city of Regensburg. “It regulates blood pressure and the sweat glands, but also the heart beat, digestion and sleep rhythm,” Kleiter explains. “The consequences can be equally diverse when this system is damaged.”
Nerve cells are designed to conduct electrical impulses, and this makes them vulnerable to lightning strikes. Survivors can face inexplicable muscle weakness and bouts of perspiration, panic attacks and a racing heartbeat. Some people suddenly become insomniacs, and they suffer pain that is generated by the damaged nerve cells themselves. In other words, their bodies turn into a scene of seemingly arbitrary rebellion.
Some symptoms also take years to emerge, so that the lightning strike seems to have occurred too far in the past to be relevant. For a long time it was a complete mystery why this happened. However, it is known that electrical fields render the cell walls temporarily permeable. Some researchers now conjecture that membranes exposed to an extremely strong current could become permanently porous. As a result, cells either die immediately or much later, depending on the degree of impact. This delayed effect makes it even more difficult to establish a relationship between a lightning strike and symptoms occurring at a later date. This is especially true of many lightning victims who become disabled. They see the constant struggle for recognition as their greatest challenge.
Growing isolation is often a problem for survivors. It begins with the lightning itself, which selects its victims with maddening indifference. And unlike natural disasters like floods or tornadoes, lightning strikes are small, private dramas reserved for a very unlucky few.
More than a billion lightning strikes hit the planet each year. Between 50 and 100 fatalities are reported each year in the United States, and between three and seven in Germany. One of the most recent victims of Germany’s current series of violent storms was a Romanian farm worker picking strawberries near Cologne last week. In a sudden thunderstorm, the first bolt of lightning hit the man and killed him.
A surprisingly large number of the survivors meeting in Pigeon Forge say that the lightning struck them from a clear, blue sky. In fact, the electric discharges can strike from distances of up to 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) away. There is often no evidence of a thunderstorm where the lightning actually strikes, and in some cases it can even strike while the sun is shining.
The Ellicksons, a family from Georgia, were struck by lightning while they were visiting their daughter Erin in college. The first strike threw all three family members to the ground. The parents were briefly knocked unconscious, but the daughter’s heart had stopped. It took paramedics 12 minutes to revive the young woman. When she later woke up in the hospital, Erin looked at her mother and said: “Mom, do I have super powers?” Der Spiegel