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The power of lightning hits home

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image A fireball ball builds above a condominium complex in Sarasota, similar but on a much larger scale than the fireball that reportedly built at the top of the mast of my sailboat. Mitch Traphagen Photo

It was more lightning than I had ever seen in my life ... and given Tampa Bay's reputation as the lightning capital of the world, that's saying something.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

On any given night, South Hillsborough could not generally be considered a hotbed of activity and 10 p.m. on a Thursday in the emergency room was no exception. I didn’t want to go but was finally convinced to do so. I told the intake nurse that I wanted to be certain that my presence wouldn’t get in the way of a real emergency.  “We have 17 people on staff and only three patients right now,” she said.

From the deck of my sailboat securely tied to its slip at the Village Marina in Ruskin, I watched the dark clouds form on the horizon.  I checked the live radar on my iPhone and saw what appeared to be a typical summer thunderstorm approaching — a narrow band of red indicating a short punch of heavy weather followed by some light rain. I went below and didn’t think anything of it until the first gust of wind hit — so hard that I thought the boat had broken loose. I watched the storm out of a porthole and was amazed at the power of it with driving rain and more lightning than I had ever seen in my life. And given the Tampa Bay area’s reputation as the lightning capital of the world, that is saying something.

I was so amazed by the storm that I cracked open the boat’s companionway and stuck my phone out into the driving rain to take a photo. I sent the photo up to Facebook, mentioning that I had never seen so much lightning. It was near constant. Ten minutes later everything changed.

So far this year, 16 people have been killed by lightning strikes, including three in Florida. At least 181 people have been injured with four months left to go. In a normal year, an average of 54 people are killed across the nation. The National Weather Service strongly urges people to immediately go indoors to a substantial structure, or at a minimum to a car with a metal roof, avoiding contact with anything metal, when thunder is first heard and to remain there for at least 30 minutes after the last thunder clap.  A lightning strike is a massive scale electrical discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object, which could be a building, a tree, the mast of a sailboat, or a person.  The bottom line is that when lightning is present, there is simply no safe place to be outdoors.

A lightning strike generally isn’t as simple as a bolt coming down from the sky. Current research indicates that what we think of as a strike is actually much more complex and could include up to 20 or more strikes that occur within milliseconds, fast enough to appear as a single incident.  An electric chair used until fairly recently for executions can carry up to 2,000 volts and five amperes of current. A lightning strike, by contrast, can carry tens of millions of volts, perhaps much more, and up to 200,000 amperes. That it is power that is lethal goes without saying.  And it can strike from more than 10 miles away.

I don’t know what made me get up from the computer I was working on at the boat’s navigation station — a small desk laden with electronics and circuitry. But something did, and inexplicably I walked to the center of the boat, standing on the wood floor in the middle of the salon, touching nothing, watching mesmerized the storm that had clearly exploded well beyond the thin red line of heavy weather I had seen earlier on my phone’s weather radar app.

And then within seconds I saw an incredibly bright flash and felt an enormous concussion, I imagined it was what a bomb blast would feel like.  Although a few seconds might have been lost at that time, I realized that something had been hit hard by a lightning strike. Something nearby. I started towards the companionway to look out and smelled electronics burning. I opened the electrical locker beneath the navigation station I had previously been sitting at and smoke poured out, almost instantly filling the cabin of the boat. Within a few moments, there was no visibility; I could not see details six inches in front of my face but I could see the bright fire that was burning in the locker. I could see the smoke continuing to pour out.

Tourists staying in the condos next to the dock later told me that they saw a giant fireball form above my boat’s mast, with small lightning bolts shooting out from that.

Due to the thick smoke I didn’t have but fortunately didn’t need visibility to find the fire extinguisher I had mounted for an emergency.  I emptied it completely and still saw an orange glow from the battery charger through the thick smoke. Through the smoke I found a second extinguisher and the fire finally faded away. The area remained too hot to touch even hours later. The rain was still pouring down but at least 20 minutes had passed with me in a smoke-filled boat cabin so I opened up the boat for air. 

People arrived on the dock, including a fireman (complete with a fire truck) and a sheriff’s deputy. Someone said I was lucky to be alive. I didn’t feel very lucky at the time. It took hours for the smoke to clear, leaving behind a mess of soot, fire extinguisher powder and fried electronics. I ensured the boat wasn’t taking on water, disconnected all power and left it, damaged and completely offline.

Just a week or so ago, I was marveling at photos on a science website that showed vine-like “tattoos” left on some victims of lightning strikes. The photos were remarkable.  A few hours after arriving home, I noticed my skin turning pink from my eyes down my face.  I worried that it would turn black, leaving a permanent reminder of my close call — I would have preferred a vine-like tattoo.  I also began to have trouble forming words and coherent sentences and a painful, wheezing cough began that ended in near-convulsions. Michelle wanted to take me to the hospital but since I was still breathing and upright I refused to go. Certainly they had real emergencies to deal with. 

She called the fire department down the road and talked to a fireman about their experience with lightning strikes and smoke inhalation, describing my symptoms. He told her to immediately call 911. As the cough and incoherence seemed to get worse, I finally relented. I didn’t want her to call 911 but would go to the emergency room if she drove.

Dr. Ervin Anthony and his staff at the hospital were wonderful. I was put into an ill-fitting gown, placed on a gurney and given a battery of tests from an EKG to chest x-rays and a CAT scan, along with an IV port and oxygen. Fifteen minutes after being given oxygen, I noticed feeling much better.  Three or four hours of it later, we left the emergency room with a diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning and with the knowledge that the strike itself caused no lasting physical damage. Three days later, I was feeling sore but much better.

The damage on the boat was extensive. Two expensive radios were fried beyond repair. Wiring in the electrical locker had blown out and some was badly burned. The central air conditioning system was non-functional and the boat’s radar system and numerous smaller electronics were out of service as well. The hit was hard enough to cause light bulbs and LED lamps to literally explode. On the dock I found pieces of an antenna and other equipment that was formerly at the top of the boat’s mast.  My iPhone had turned into a glass and metal paperweight and a new laptop computer, that remained running throughout the incident, lost the ability to charge, both possible victims to the tremendous electromagnetic pulse that likely blew through the entire boat (and me) immediately following the strike. But it certainly could have been worse. No one died and the boat was still floating. I noticed that at least two fillings in my teeth had apparently been loosened from the strike or the following concussion and the self-winding watch I was wearing that normally dies after 20 hours of non-use ran continuously for four straight days.

I’ve always seen incredible beauty in lightning, and the opportunities for seeing it are nearly endless on the Gulf coast of Florida. I still see that beauty but now with a newfound respect for its sheer power and utter indifference to what or who it can strike. There is no safe place to be outside while lightning is in the area. The National Weather Service knows this and started a campaign to educate the public on the dangers of lightning. Since the beginning of that campaign, the average number of deaths nationally has dropped from 73 annually to 37 for the most recent years.

The person on the dock was right: I was lucky to be alive. I was fixed, the boat can be fixed and what I feared would be a permanent black reminder on my face has faded away. But my memory won’t fade.  For me, the reality of lightning has hit home.

For more information, visit www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov

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