A bolt of lightning cut through an overcast sky one August afternoon in 1983 in a Thomson, Ga., parking lot and enveloped Renee Smith and her two children in wavy neon strands of raw electricity.
In a millisecond, their lives were changed.
Three-month-old Sarah, strapped in a carrier in the car, escaped with little injury. But the lightning struck her mother and sister as they were exiting the car and knocked them to the ground.
Passers-by rushed to give them cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Five-year-old Jessica's body was covered in red streaks from the lightning. Doctors later thought her blood had coagulated.
Mrs. Smith, lying face down, was bleeding from the face. She was no longer breathing. Her heart had stopped.
"I was dead 17 minutes on record," said Mrs. Smith of Lincolnton, Ga.
The story of the "lightning lady" was reported in newspapers and broadcast on shows such as It's a Miracle and The 700 Club, which came to Lincolnton to film the initial story and then follow-ups - the most recent about 10 years ago.
Church and home groups and Christian organizations also invited Mrs. Smith to tell her story. The speaking evolved into White Stone Ministries. "White stone" is found in Revelations 2:17, Mrs. Smith said.
According to National Weather Service estimates, there are 100,000 thunderstorms each year in the United States with 1,000 to 2,000 people suffering strikes. About a third of those strikes are fatal, with two-thirds of the fatalities occurring within the first hour after a strike. About three out of four survivors sustain permanent injury to hearing, vision, the brain or other major organs.
Doctors told Fred Smith, Mrs. Smith's husband, that his wife could have nerve damage, paralysis or heart or kidney failure, she said. "At the very least, I would have memory lost. On the bottom of my chart, it said I had irreversible brain damage."
Strike damage can manifest itself years after an incident. But other than cataract surgery on Jessica's left eye when she was 6 years old, the Smiths have suffered no physical or psychological problems in the 19 years since the strike - thunderclaps do not even bother them, Mrs. Smith said. "We know that God is in control of our lives."
Jessica, now 24, works in sales in Augusta. Sarah, 19, in her second year at South Georgia College, wants to be a nurse.
Mrs. Smith has tried to find out how much electricity went through them, but no one could tell her, she said. "You cannot measure raw electricity. One 'inch' of raw electricity could light up the whole city of New York at one time - obviously God's power is a lot stronger than that."
An itinerant evangelist, Mrs. Smith goes wherever doors open, such as to communities of American and Canadian Indians. White Stone organizes visits by other evangelists to congregations networked with her ministry.
"We want to connect the dots across the land from Alaska to Georgia, to see what God is doing to connect his body together," said Mrs. Smith, who blames the lightning strike on a satanic attack.
Though the atmosphere was heavy that day in August, there had been no lightning, she said. "We have an enemy called Satan who does not like Christians. What he intended for evil, God intended for good."
For more information, call (706) 359-1145 or see the White Stone Ministries Web site, www.injesus.com.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.