Jan 05, 2018 I Micah Hanks

When Lightning Strikes: Unusual Lightning-Related Deaths, Past and Present

"Lightning never strikes twice," or at least the saying goes. However, in 2017 it seems that first strikes were down in numbers as well, to the credit of lightning strike awareness campaigns.

According to the National Weather Service, there were just 16 people killed by lightning strikes in the United States in 2017, the lowest number since record-keeping on lightning-related deaths began in 1940. These numbers are down significantly from those early years of record keeping; in 1943 alone, 432 victims of lightning strikes were reported.

USA Today reports that in 2001, the NWS began upping the ante on awareness of the dangers of lightning strikes, launching a public awareness campaign. Coinciding with the broadening public awareness of the issue, deaths related to lightning strikes were numbering significantly lower than in previous decades, averaging around 55 deaths per year.

While deaths from lightning strikes are at an all-time low, there are several incidents involving lightning that have occurred over the years that border the uncanny. For instance, in October 1998, during a football game in the eastern Kasai Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a sudden lightning strike killed all eleven members of the opposing team, leaving the home players unscathed. While some suggested that the visiting team had been "cursed", the BBC noted at the time of the incident that there had been no official confirmation of the circumstances, further noting that another 30 individuals were burned or otherwise injured during the strike.

An even more unlucky (and unlikely) lightning strike occurred in 2012 when lightning struck at an airshow in Lowestoft, Suffolk. The victim, who survived the incident, was a thirteen-year-old boy in attendance. However, it had not been his age alone that involved the unlucky number 13: the reported time the strike occurred had been 1:13 (or 13:13 Military Time), and the date was Friday the 13th. The sensational circumstances made fodder for tabloids in the UK, who reported the unlucky incident.

Arguably, one of the most unusual lightning-related deaths ever reported involved something quite different from a mere lightning strike. According to a 1989 report by G.T. Meaden, who at the time was editor of the U.K. Journal of Meteorology, an incident in Hungary in May of that year, along a roadway near the village of Kerecsend outside of Budapest, may have been the first reported death by ball lightning:

The victim was a 27-year-old engineer within whose body, it is conjectured, ball lightning formed. The man had stopped his car and walked to the edge of the field about 10 meters distant to urinate. Certainly his wife who had remained behind in the car saw that the young man was surrounded by the blue light. He opened his arms wide and fell to the ground. His wife ran to him, noticing that one of his tennis shoes had been torn off.  Although it looked hopeless she tried to help him, but soon after she was able to stop a passing bus. Amazingly, the bus was filled with medical doctors returning from a meeting; unhappily they immediately pronounced the man was dead.

The victim's body apparently suffered damage to the lungs, as well as "a complete carbonization" of the intestines and stomach. “This is indicative of internal combustion,” Meaden wrote of the bizarre incident, “just as the blue light is proof of atmospheric electricity, while the damaged heel and shoe are indicative of electrical earthing.”

According to Ronald Holle, writing in the Journal of Applied Meteorology, decreased numbers of lighting related deaths today seem to coincide with "a shift in population from rural to urban regions" over the last several decades.

Also, lightning-related deaths that resulted from the use of corded landline phones have decreased, having been largely replaced by cordless varieties and cellular phones.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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