Lightning Strikes!

Three true stories of close encounters with one of Mother Nature’s most powerful forces.

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. That’s patently untrue—just ask the Empire State Building! But wherever lightning strikes, the potential for death and destruction is significant. The temperature inside a bolt of lightning reaches about 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit—five times the temperature at the surface of the sun. That’s why lightning causes fires, and even more dramatic, causes things to explode. If an object struck by lightning has any moisture inside, that water will instantly superheat and turn to steam, expanding and shattering whatever contained it (a tree, for example). Furthermore, without a lightning rod to direct the voltage deep into the earth, the area around where the lightning strikes can become highly charged, electrocuting anyone standing nearby. (That’s why you don’t want to stand underneath a tree in a lightning storm.) Not surprisingly, before Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, houses were frequently struck by lightning during thunderstorms and burned to the ground.

So what causes lightning? An electric charge builds up in cumulonimbus clouds, better known as thunderheads. For reasons not fully understood, the water droplets and ice crystals moving around inside the cloud cause the cloud to become positively charged near the top and negatively charged at the bottom. Most lightning actually happens between clouds, momentarily canceling out the charges by completing a circuit. But the negative charge in the lower part of the cloud also causes the ground below to develop a positive charge, and if the conditions are right, a circuit forms between the cloud and the ground. Initially the air itself prevents a connection, but when the charges are strong enough, a path through the air—only as wide as your thumb—forms. The result is a cloud-to-ground lightning bolt. The electricity passes down that channel at about 62 million miles per hour.

Here are three true stories about friends of mine who encountered lightning, up-close-and-personal—and lived to tell about it.

A Close Call in the Sky

I first moved to New York City right before America’s Bicentennial celebration. As you’d expect—and perhaps some of you recall—a huge fireworks display was planned to commemorate the occasion, centered around the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The fireworks, as usual in New York celebrations, would be shot off from barges in the harbor.

Those of us living in the city wanted to find a good spot to watch the fireworks. I planned to make my way to a spot near the Hudson River’s edge where I thought the view would be pretty good. But my best friend had what seemed like an even better idea: Watch from the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Towers. (Of course, the towers would remain standing for another 25 years after that celebration.)

If you never got to visit the observation deck at the Trade Towers—which I did, many times—you need to understand the way it was set up. The towers were famously a quarter-mile tall, and only one of the towers (the south tower) had an observation deck. The inside top floor of the tower, reachable by elevator, was enclosed, with floor-to-ceiling windows so that visitors could look almost straight down at the city below. But if the weather was good—not too windy, for example—you could take an escalator up to the roof and check out the view with nothing but air between you and the world below.

The outside observation deck was designed to prevent anyone from being able to jump. Instead of simply letting people go out onto the roof, the architects had designed a rectangular boardwalk elevated above the roof, set back 10 or 20 feet from the edge of the roof on all sides, with unclimbable fencing around it. Because of this arrangement, even if you surmounted the fence around the elevated walkway, you’d only land on the roof below, giving folks plenty of time to prevent you from getting to the edge of the actual roof. Meanwhile, the boardwalk was raised sufficiently high above the roof that, although you obviously couldn’t look straight down the way you could from the enclosed top floor of the tower, you could see a lot of the world below. And of course, you could see far into the distance on a clear day. Being up there could be an almost spiritual experience on a beautiful, calm, clear day—something I experienced more than once. But it also seemed like a good place to get a view of the Bicentennial fireworks.

Knowing that he wouldn’t be the only person with this idea, my friend worked out a strategy to get himself a good view. He got up to the elevated walkway early in the day; he planned to grab a bit of floorspace on the side facing the Statue of Liberty and hold his spot until the fireworks that evening. (Of course, he came equipped with a bag of munchies.)

At first, his plan worked. He got up there early enough to get a spot with a decent view of the harbor, and held onto his spot as the day wore on and the crowd grew. But then there was an unexpected development; a TV news crew had gotten permission to film the fireworks from the roof as well. They had been allowed onto the actual roof below the boardwalk, where they had set up several TV cameras. My friend was able to watch everything happening down on the roof below from where he was sitting.

As day turned to evening, a well-known national TV news anchor showed up. The weather had been perfect all day; but suddenly my friend noticed that it had gotten hazy and humid. Still, nothing seemed amiss. Then, my friend heard a ruckus and looked to see what was causing the raised voices. People near him were laughing and pointing down at the famous news anchor. “Look! His hair is standing on end!” they were saying. It was true; his hair was standing straight out from his head.

Then suddenly, there was a blinding flash and deafening roar, and a hot wind blew over the crowd. People started screaming. The next thing my friend knew, officials were running around the boardwalk yelling for everyone to get inside the building. Everyone crowded around the down escalator, realizing that something serious had just occurred.

As it turned out, the roof was high enough in the sky that a passing thundercloud had enveloped the top of the tower; the intense electrical charge inside the cloud had caused the newsman’s hair to stand on end. Ultimately, the electrical charge had discharged into the lightning rod projecting up from the roof of the tower. Everyone on the roof had been mere feet away from one of the most powerful blasts of energy and heat that Mother Nature can deliver.

Eventually, the cloud passed and it was determined that the danger had passed as well. Everyone was allowed to return to the roof and boardwalk, but of course, my friend had lost his hard-won viewing spot overlooking the harbor. Ironically, it turned out not to be a good way to view the fireworks anyway! Apparently, thanks to the smoke from the fireworks and the angle of the view, the experience was utterly disappointing. But everyone up there that day had an up-close-and-personal interaction with a lightning blast that they wouldn’t soon forget.

A Ghostly Encounter

Lightning occurs when opposite electrical charges are connected and discharge. But those electrical charges can build up during a storm withoutdischarging, causing other phenomena to occur, including what’s known as St. Elmo’s fire. A dear friend—currently 99 years old—had a memorable close encounter with this in 1943, during World War II.

“My husband was away at war,” she recalls. “I was down in southern Georgia and needed to get a ride north with my 16-month-old child. At the time, anybody would take you on a car trip if they had room, because gas was being rationed. If you took a passenger, you could use the passenger’s gas coupons and save your own. As it happened, I met two ladies who were going to drive north and they were happy to let me join them because I had my ration book.

“It was a long drive,” she continues. “There was no interstate highway system back then, so the entire drive was on local roads. Nevertheless, my young child didn’t make any fuss at all. My traveling companions wanted to stay in a hotel when we had to stop at the end of the day. However, I’d traveled in this part of the country before and I knew that the cities had what were known as ‘tourist homes’— big, beautiful old homes in which you could spend the night. I suggested that if we couldn’t find a hotel, we could look for one of those.

“Late in the first day, as we were approaching Fayetteville, a thunderstorm came up,” she says. “Unfortunately, it turned out that my two traveling companions were scared to death of lightning. As the storm got stronger, they began quivering and muttering to themselves because they were so frightened. We needed to stop for the night, but every hotel was full. We tried waiting out the storm in the car, but it became apparent that it wasn’t going to stop any time soon.

“We were close to losing hope,” she says.  “Finally, we saw a house with a sign that said, ‘One room available.’ We decided that under the circumstances we could all share one room, so we stopped. A woman answered the door. She said the sign was a mistake, and we couldn’t stay there because her mother had died the night before in the room in question. However, we were desperate and begged her to take us in. She wasn’t going to—but then she saw my young child and relented.

“The fact that her mother had died there the night before didn’t matter to me, but it turned out that, in addition to lightning, the ladies I was traveling with were afraid of ghosts,” she continues. “They were sure the dead lady would still be there. I just said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

“The woman led us to a large room with a big bed on one side and a metal cot set up in the middle of the room under a fancy brass chandelier,” she says. “Her aged mother hadn’t been able to get up stairs, so they’d put her bed in the dining room on the first floor. The two girls got into the bed in which the woman had died the night before, which was still moist! (We didn’t ask why.) Eventually we turned out the lights. As we settled in to try to get some sleep, the storm grew more intense, with lightning flashing and thunder roaring. My two fellow travelers hung onto each other in the bed, whimpering, certain that the ghost was still in the room—if not in the bed itself! I was lying on my back on the cot with my young child on my chest, because there was no place else to put her.

“Although I wasn’t worried about lightning or ghosts, it was hard to sleep with all the lightning and thunder,” she continues. “I was lying there quietly, when all of a sudden the chandelier above me was covered in little blue flames, like gas jets. I wasn’t afraid, because I recognized what I was seeing: St. Elmo’s fire. I’d seen an article about St. Elmo’s fire lighting up the masts on ships—although I’d never actually experienced it first-hand. Of course, when the other two women saw it, they were doomed. They were praying and muttering and working their rosary beads.

“Meanwhile, I was lying in the center of the cot under the chandelier with my child lying on my chest asleep,” she says. “I wasn’t touching any of the metal parts of the cot frame. I don’t have any idea whether I would have gotten a shock if I’d been touching the metal, but during the display, my child’s body stiffened. I assume the electric charge was causing her muscles to tighten. I didn’t even feel any tingling.

“The whole display, with the chandelier engulfed in blue flames, only lasted two or three minutes,” she says. “Before I had time to decide if I should do anything it was over. Once it stopped, the tiny body lying on top of me relaxed again. The storm continued outside, but nothing further happened in the room, and I eventually fell asleep. The next day we continued on our way.”

And what about her two traveling companions? “They lived,” she says with a laugh.

Good Timing

A friend of mine shared this story: He and his wife lived on a crowded street not far from the ocean in a three-story house that had a fireplace on the first floor to allow a cozy fire on chilly evenings. A brick chimney rose up through the floors above to the roof.

One summer evening a very lively thunderstorm came up. They were at home, but seeing the constantly flashing lightning and hearing the thunder roaring, they decided it would be fun to sit out on the front porch to watch the display. They’d done this before with no ill effect. It was a warm evening, so they sat down on the front porch swing.

It was only a few minutes into the storm that there was a blinding flash and a simultaneous, ear-splitting CRACK of thunder, that could only mean lightning had struck very close to them. After recovering from the shock of the intense light and deafening sound, they immediately realized something was terribly wrong. For one thing, the front porch window was shattered.

In haste, they opened the front door and went in, only to stand horrified at what they found: Everything in the room was trashed. The reason soon became clear. Lightning had struck the chimney, causing the fireplace and chimney to explode, shooting bricks out into the room at high speed in every direction. And it didn’t take them long to realize that the chimney had exploded from top to bottom, all the way up to the roof, trashing every floor of the house with bricks flying like enormous bullets. Apparently, there was some moisture inside the mortar holding the bricks in the chimney and fireplace together. When instantly superheated by the massive flow of electricity, the expanding droplets caused the structure to explode.

My friend noted that the experience had a good side and a bad side. On the bad side, their house had been trashed—from the inside! But on the good side, if he and his wife hadn’t decided to sit out on the front porch to watch the storm, they would almost certainly have been killed.

So the next time a thunderstorm comes up, remember what you’re up against and choose your course of action wisely!