Originally created 07/21/98

When lighting strikes



WASHINGTON -- Like 66,000 others, Lysa Selfon and her sister, Amanda, had come to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium here on a sunny Saturday afternoon for music and celebration. As the Tibetan Freedom Concert got under way, they were walking through Section 111, above the midfield dugout, toward friends who had just called Lysa on her cellular phone.

The first flash-and-boom turned their attention to the darkening sky. The second knocked them flat.

Scrambling to her feet, Amanda worried first about her sister's bad back. "Lysa, you okay?" she shouted.

No response.

Lysa was sprawled motionless on her front, head turned sideways, ghost-white, blood trickling out of her mouth. Amanda started screaming.

Bystanders came running, including a doctor and an emergency-room technician, joined almost immediately by medics from the dugout first-aid station. They rolled Lysa onto her back. The right side of her powder-blue Gap T-shirt was riddled with burn holes. She wasn't breathing and had no pulse.

"Her body was like a rag doll," Amanda said. "No life in it at all."

Amid the hubbub, in a cramped passageway between two rows of seats, they started cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), with mouth-to-mouth breathing and chest compressions in a desperate effort to coax a beat into her standstill heart.

Then came the rain.

In mid-June, Lysa Selfon was hit in the head and chest by one of nature's proverbially rare but terrifying hazards -- a lightning bolt. And survived.

The lightning singed her hair, blew a hole in her right eardrum and left her with second-degree burns over 20 percent of her body, mainly on her face, neck and chest.

But it was the cardiac arrest that nearly killed her. She was clinically "dead," without a pulse for more than five minutes -- until CPR brought her back to life.

A lightning strike at Fort Gordon Friday night sent 31 reservists to the hospital. At about 8:30 p.m., lightning struck the ground in a training area where 263 reservists were talking part in a summer exercise. Twenty-nine of the soldiers were treated at Eisenhower Medical Center and released Friday night. The most seriously injured, Spc. Carmelia Butler, underwent foot surgery Sunday. She was sitting on the ground in her tent when the lightning strike traveled through her spine and out her foot.

Death by lightning usually occurs not from severe burns but because the electrical force shocks the heart into cardiac arrest or throws the heartbeat out of whack. Lightning can also cut off breathing by paralyzing the chest muscles or damaging the respiratory center in the brain stem.

It takes only about one-hundredth of an ampere of electric current to stop the human heartbeat or send it into ventricular fibrillation, a dangerously chaotic rhythm. A typical lightning bolt carries 30,000 to 40,000 amps of direct current.

"The heart is an electrical organ," said James Jeng, associate director of Washington Hospital Center's burn unit, where Ms. Selfon was treated. A lightning bolt's huge surge overwhelms the electrical activity of the heart and scrambles its natural rhythm.

"It's like doing CONTROL-ALT-DELETE on your computer," Jeng said.

Getting hit by lightning may be a statistical one-in-a-million risk in the abstract, but the odds rightly seem less favorable if you're standing out in a thunderstorm.

About 100,000 thunderstorms a year occur in the United States, according to the National Weather Service, and lightning is present in all of them. They are most common in the Southeast, especially along Florida's Gulf Coast.

The area of central Florida from Tampa to Orlando records more lightning strikes than any other area in the nation -- 25 flashes per square mile per year, said Ronald Holle, a research meteorologist in the Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla."Thunderclouds are like big batteries," said Brian Bennett, assistant athletic trainer at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who has helped write lightning safety guidelines for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The air around a lightning bolt can reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. The superheated air expands so fast that it causes an atmospheric concussion -- and the shock waves heard as claps of thunder.

On its way to the ground or after it lands, lightning tends to surge toward good conductors of electricity -- wires, pipes, metal fences, water or people -- in its path. Yet its exact route sometimes seems random and fluky.

"Lightning is always looking for the path of least resistance," Bennett said.

Nerves, blood and muscles -- because of their high water content -- are the body's best conductors of electricity, and therefore more vulnerable to lightning. Bones and fat are relatively poor conductors. Skin ranks in between.

Although only about one-quarter of the people struck by lightning die, many survivors are left with a lasting injury, such as hearing loss, numbness or weakness in the arms and legs or damage to the autonomic nervous system, which regulates body temperature and digestion.

Medical treatment of a lightning strike victim typically goes through three stages, Jeng said. The first is the lifesaving resuscitation at the scene or in the hospital. Next comes a two-to-six-week period of treatment for electrical burns. Finally comes what Jeng calls "the thereafter" -- the rest of the patient's life after recovery from the burns themselves. In that third stage, more severely injured patients must learn to cope with lingering effects ranging from muscle spasms and hearing loss to less concrete symptoms such as memory loss, attention difficulties, chronic fatigue, depression and sleep disturbance.

Neurological damage can be caused directly by the lightning bolt or indirectly by the temporary interruption of the brain's vital oxygen supply during "cardiac standstill."

Lightning can strike a person in several ways. A direct hit, with the bolt passing directly through the body, is usually fatal. A side hit, or flashover, which runs along the skin without passing directly through the body, is more survivable even though it may cause more visible burns. A third type of hit occurs when ground lightning, taking the path of least resistance, surges up one leg and down the other instead of along the ground between a person's feet.

One of the many questions Lysa Selfon raised after she woke up in the hospital intensive-care unit was how she could get hit by lightning when she was wearing platform rubber-soled sneakers. But rubber soles don't protect a person from a direct lightning strike any more than tires protect a car, said Martin Uman, an expert on lightning and professor of electrical engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"Lightning which travels many miles through insulating air is not about to be halted by half an inch or even a yard of insulating rubber," Uman wrote in his book "All About Lightning."

It's unlikely that the cellular phone Selfon was carrying increased her risk, according to doctors and lightning researchers. The phone was turned on, but not in use when lightning struck, said Lysa's sister, Amanda.

Experts caution against using regular telephones during a thunderstorm because of their connection to outdoor wiring. Two or three people a year are killed while talking on the telephone during a lightning storm, Uman said, but many more get their ear drums blown out by an ear-splitting surge of sound.

Out in the open, people are more vulnerable by their height than by what they're touching, said Bennett. "I could raise a dead chicken or a broomstick over my head, and I'd be more vulnerable. Anything that makes you higher than your surroundings is bad."

Uman's basic advice is: "If you're inside, don't be near anything with wires or pipes to the outside. And if you're outside, don't be under the tallest thing around."

People tend to overestimate the distance to a lightning flash, said meteorologist Holle. The easiest way to estimate that distance takes advantage of the "flash-to-bang" time lag between a lightning strike and the sound of thunder. Light travels almost a million times faster than sound, which takes nearly five seconds to go a mile.

To tell how far away a lightning bolt is, count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, and divide by 5. For example, if you count 10 seconds from flash to bang, the lightning is about two miles away.

Holle and Bennett recommend what they call the "30-30 rule." That means taking shelter immediately if the flash-to-bang interval is less than 30 seconds, indicating the lightning is within six miles. And it means waiting 30 minutes after the last thunderclap or flash before resuming outdoor activity.

"People will say it's okay to go back out if they see some sunlight or blue sky," Bennett said. "It's not okay. It's still dangerous." Many storms are 10 miles wide, he noted, and the phrase "bolt from the blue" is not merely a figure of speech.

Staff reports were used in this article.

If You're Caught in a Thunderstorm . . .

-- Seek shelter immediately inside the nearest building or an enclosed vehicle. If no shelter is available, stay away from trees or tall objects, which may conduct electricity to nearby people.

-- Avoid high ground, water and open spaces. Don't touch metal objects, such as golf clubs, umbrellas, fences or tools.

-- If you're outside with no shelter nearby, find a low spot away from tall trees, fences or poles. In the woods, stay under shorter trees. Out in the open, try to avoid being the highest object. Do not lie down; crouch with your feet together to minimize contact with the ground.

-- If you're swimming, get out of the water, which can transmit electrical current. In a boat, get to shore as soon as possible. Do not touch the mast or metal objects.

-- Indoors, turn off electric and electronic appliances. Stay off the telephone (unless it has no cord or antenna). Avoid touching metal or anything connected by wires or pipes to the outside. Do not take a bath or shower.

-- Wait 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning or thunderclap before going outside or assuming the danger has passed.

Lightening myths

Since ancient times, when thunderstorms were first attributed to the wrath of the gods, lightning has spawned a rich but often misleading mythology. Here are some facts that run counter to popular belief:

-- Lightning can strike the same spot twice. Skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building are struck thousands of times a year, and as many as a dozen times in one 20-minute storm. So are isolated mountain summits.

-- People struck by lightning do not carry a dangerous electric charge and may be safely touched. They need immediate treatment. If they have no pulse or have stopped breathing, CPR should be started and emergency help summoned right away.

-- It need not be raining for lightning to strike. Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from a storm's rainfall. "Lightning can occur without much preamble," said James Jeng, of Washington Hospital Center's burn unit. "Sometimes lightning is the preamble."

--So-called heat lightning -- a flash without thunder -- is not harmless. It is simply too far away for its thunder to be heard -- yet.

Lightning at a Glance

A thunderstorm develops when masses of unstable warm air rise and cool rapidly, usually on hot summer days. The energy in the storm produces an intense electrical field like a giant battery, with a positive charge concentrated at the top and a negative charge at the bottom.

Lightning strikes when a storm's electrical potential -- the difference between its positive and negative charges -- becomes great enough to overcome the resistance of the surrounding air. Arcing across that difference, lightning can jump from cloud to cloud, cloud to ground or -- in the vicinity of tall trees or structures -- ground to cloud.

A lightning bolt can carry millions of volts of electrical energy, with a current of tens of thousands of amperes.

The air near a lightning bolt is superheated to about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. Rapid expansion of the surrounding air causes a shock wave heard as thunder.

Frequency: About 100,000 thunderstorms a year in the United States, mainly from May through September, according to the National Weather Service. All thunderstorms contain lightning, and some produce hundreds of lightning strikes.

Casualties: About 100 deaths a year in the United States. Another 300 people are injured but survive.

Distance: To estimate how far away lightning is, use the "flash-to-bang" method. Count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, and divide by five. For example, if you count 10 seconds from flash to bang, the lightning is about two miles away.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, American Red Cross