Struck by lightning: tales from survivors

By Kathy Riley 25 June 2009
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Electrifying stories from survivors of lightning strikes.

YOU’D EXPECT DOUG BROAD’S tale of being struck by lightning to begin with a dark and stormy night, but it doesn’t.

“Actually, the storm had passed over,” says the 42-year-old Queenslander, who was holidaying on the Gold Coast with his wife Louise and 7-year-old daughter Phoebe in December 2005 when catastrophe hit. “Kids were out riding their bikes, people were swimming. There wasn’t any rain at all.”

Doug was wiping down an outside table when a bolt of lightning struck with such force that it shook the building and knocked out the power. Louise, who was in the kitchen, thought a bomb had exploded. She raced outside to find a blackened and burnt Doug lying unconscious on the ground – one eye looking up, the other down, his hair singed and standing on end. His heart had stopped beating. Dredging up a 20-year-old memory of first-aid training, Louise commenced CPR and saved her husband’s life.

After spending five days in an induced coma, Doug emerged from hospital with serious external burns, a broken shoulder, industrial deafness, a dysfunctional short-term memory and a scar on his brain requiring six-monthly MRI scans, not to mention a mind and body so traumatised that even today he’s easily exhausted.

But he’s lucky to be counted among the 100 or so Australians who survive a lightning strike each year, rather than one of the 10 who don’t.


Lightning strikes over the city of Brisbane, Queensland. (Image: Sam Petherbridge/flickr)

The power of lightning

A single stroke of lightning releases up to 500 million volts and a temperature of around 27,000ºC – three times hotter than the surface of the Sun. During summer, the country’s peak storm season, there are around five major storms a day, each producing up to 3000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per hour.

Australians have about one chance in 1.6 million of being struck by lightning, which must make Joanne Nitscke of Malabar, NSW, one of the country’s unluckiest. Lightning has paid a visit to her home three times in the past 20 years – and she’s even moved house during that time. The first bolt set fire to her house. The second, six or seven years later, killed her pet budgie. She wasn’t aware of the third strike until a neighbour with a penchant for photography tapped on her door and showed her a picture he’d taken at the exact moment a bolt hit the roof of her house. “I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with karma,” Joanne says with a laugh, “although my mother-in-law might have something to say about that.”

Warwick and Kaylene Marks of Dorrigo, NSW, didn’t have much to laugh about in October 2005, when a single lightning bolt killed 68 of their dairy cows – almost half their herd. “I was looking out the window thinking about bringing the washing in, when I saw a flash of lightning and heard a huge clap of thunder – the kind that almost goes through you,” recalls Kaylene. “Warwick and my son came in and I could tell something was wrong. ‘There’s a whole lot of cows down,’ said Warwick, ‘and cows don’t lie down in a storm’.”

“The cows wouldn’t have stood a chance,” says Associate Professor Gordian Fulde, director of emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, NSW. “When lightning strikes the ground, it can travel through it. This creates ‘stride potential’, where the electric current can travel up one leg and out the other. That’s why, if you get caught out in the open in a storm, you should stand away from people and tall objects, and crouch low with your feet together.

“Every strike that hits the ground is potentially fatal,” he says. “In the US they have a slogan: ‘if you hear it, fear it; if you see it, flee it.’ A storm is a storm – if there’s lightning, get the hell out of there.”

If you can hear thunder, you’re at risk of lightning strike

If you can hear thunder, you’re within 16km of a storm and at risk of being struck by lightning. If your hair is standing up on end in a storm, you may be in particularly grave danger, as you could be forming part of a stepped leader reaching towards the lightning cloud.

Seek shelter – stay indoors or in your car (the metal will conduct the charge safely to the ground). Avoid small, open structures or tents.

If outside, crouch low – ideally in a ditch. Don’t stand near tall objects such as trees or poles, which can attract lightning. If lightning strikes the ground, electric potential can radiate from the strike point. Keep your feet together to minimise the chance of a current passing into one leg and out the other. If you’re in a group, spread out.

What not to do in a lightning storm

Don’t use electrical appliances. Stay off the phone and computer, disconnect power leads.

If someone near you is struck and has stopped breathing, commence CPR and continue until medical help arrives. Call an ambulance, even if the person appears to be unaffected.

Wait at least 30 minutes after the last roll of thunder before leaving shelter.

Source: Australian Geographic Oct-Dec 2007