Surviving a Lightning Strike

It may seem strange to some, but we are still in the early learning stages when it comes to lightning. More knowledge is being amassed every year about this phenomenon.

One of the reasons that so much time, effort, and study is going on in relation to lightning and lightning strikes is due to the fact that each year, houses and forests are destroyed by fires caused by the strikes, and the less well known fact that many people each year are struck by lightning.

While our knowledge is expanding, we still don’t have a good grasp of why certain people are more apt to be struck, or why one person can be struck and survive while another is struck and dies. This is exemplified by an event that occurred about 30 years ago in a small town in southern Oregon.

Two girls had been swimming in a municipal swimming pool when a thunderstorm formed. Officials got everyone out of the pool, and the girls who were both still wet and barefoot, went to call for a ride. One of the girls went to a pay phone while the other waited nearby. Lightning struck the ground between the two girls, though several feet closer to the one who was on the phone. She was knocked from her feet and suffered second degree burns on the soles of her feet. The other girl was knocked from her feet as well, but was instantly electrocuted.

There are a number of questions regarding this incident that haven’t been answered, and probably won’t be for at least some time to come.

Why did the girl closest to the strike survive while the one who was standing further away die? Both were wet, both were barefoot, both were standing on pavement, both were wearing similar wet bathing suits, neither was wearing jewelry, and the survivor was holding onto a telephone. By our current knowledge of lightning, she should have been more apt to die than the other girl, because of the phone in her hand.

This is just one incident that continues to be baffling. Many more cases exist, with seemingly little explanation other than pure chance. Even experts on lightning are hard pressed to offer any rational explanations or answers to the questions that abound.

Some people also survive direct strikes with little more than burns. How can they withstand the high voltage and amperage?

A few have been struck more than once. Why are they so prone to being struck by lightning?

The reality is that while we are coming to understand the mechanisms that cause lightning and have a much firmer grasp on how lightning behaves than we did even a decade ago, we still don’t have answers. The best we can do is to say that some things like rubber-soled shoes might increase our chances of survival. Chance, it appears, is still involved in surviving a lightning strike.