Boys' Life

Lightning!

Be prepared is the best defense against killer bolts. But as these Scouts sadly learned firsthand, sometimes even that isn't enough. (2006)

 

By Charlotte Huff

When the sky turned gray last July, no one in Troop 1, St. Helena, Calif., was particularly worried. Summer storms had brewed before during their lengthy hike -- nine days and 72 miles planned in all through California's rugged Sierra Nevada.

The rain picked up. So the seven Scouts and five adults gathered under two tarps and a nearby tent along a hillside. They saw a little lightning, but dime size hail began to fall. The group joked around, playing with the ice as it hit the ground. "That's the last thing I remember doing-eating hail," says Star Scout David Phelps, 14.

Then came a dramatic flash, followed soon by another -- even brighter and louder.

"I heard this huge bang," says Second Class Scout Owen Hale, 14, who had sought shelter under the upper tarp. "It was the loudest noise I've ever heard. Then I saw a big glow under the tarp."

The tarp below had been shuck by lightning, injuring all seven people beneath, plus Star Scout Tom Smith, 15, who was boiling water just outside. Four of the five adults were down.

In the next two hours, the Scouts' efforts would be crucial. They assisted with CPR, ran a mile and a half at 11,000 feet for help and used tarps to guide in helicopters. Their best efforts couldn't save Second Class Scout Ryan Collins, 13, and assistant Scoutmaster Stephen McCullagh, 29.

It was not for lack of trying.

"The boys knew what to do. No one told them," says Chris Phelps, an assistant Scoutmaster who also was injured. "They knew to blow whistles (for help). They knew to ask questions— to establish a level of shock. The boys were quite instinctual in how they responded."

Says Assistant Scoutmaster Derek Dwyer, who was evacuated by helicopter, "I'm probably here because of them."

 

The Lightning Risk

Lightning strikes kill about 67 Americans each year, according to the National Weather Service. Just a few weeks after Ryan and McCullagh died, a 15-year-old Scout was killed by lightning high in the Utah mountains.

The odds of being injured by lightning in any given year are long-roughly one in 240.000 (Compare that to our far shorter odds. one in 6,300, of dying in a car accident.) But don't be careless either. Every year 25 million flashes of lightning strike the ground somewhere in the United States.

"People often wait far too long to get to a safe place," says John Jensenius, a National Weather Service meteorologist and lightning safety expert.

"As a rule lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain area of a thunderstorm," he says. "That's about the distance you can hear thunder. So if you hear thunder, that's an indication that you are already within striking distance."

Find a house or some other substantial building with plumbing and electricity to direct lightning safely to me ground, Jensenius says if shelter isn't available retreat to a car or truck. But sometimes as experienced Scouts know there is no easy escape hatch when you're hiking in the woods.

 

Saving Lives

Immediately after the lightning strike Patrick Holstein recalls hearing Owen Hale call out "Ryan's hit!" Patrick, 15, who had been sharing a tent with his father, ran down about 50 feet to the lower tarp. Several people had been literally thrown by the lightning strike five feet or more, landing outside of the tarp. Tom Smith was knocked on his back.

David Phelps was among those injured. "I was lying on my back. all tightened up like a ball," David recalls. "I was in really excruciating pain all over. I pretty much thought I was going to die right then."

Scoutmaster Stuart Smith, who had been briefly knocked out, quickly regained consciousness. He performed CPR first on Derek Dwyer for several minutes while directing others to start working on Ryan and McCullagh.

In the next two hours, most of the Scouts performed CPR at some point, putting into action the extensive training that McCullagh had provided them. "We had two or three guys on each person." Owen recalls. "We would all switch off because it was pretty tiring." Scout Carl Ericson's help was particularly crucial, Smith says. "The other boys simply weren't big enough to do mouth-to-mouth (resuscitation), on Stephen," he says.

McCullagh appeared to have been the most severely injured. After CPR, Ryan's color improved and he maintained a weak pulse, so the Scouts remained hopeful.

Seeking help

Tom Smith volunteered to run for help, (Indeed, the first step after someone has been struck: Dial 9-1-1 or seek other help— fast.) His father, the Scoutmaster, suggested he take a buddy along. So Tom and Owen tore through the storm, with darkness approaching and rain pelting down. They knew there was a ranger station more than a mile away but worried that it wouldn't be staffed. Toward the end, with the station in their sights, they careened down a steep bank: They crossed a four-foot-wide stream the rushing water reaching their waist.

The two Scouts did find a ranger, who radioed for a helicopter. "He kind of calmed us down, too," Owen says. The ranger gave Tom and Owen each an oxygen tank and shouldered some equipment himself. The group ran back, with the boys exhausted. "Both of our throats were dry," Owen says. "We could hardly breathe. We would run a pretty long distance. And then we would walk for five seconds and then we would keep running.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, Chris Phelps was slowly recovering.

Derek Dwyer remained unconscious although his body was moving. And more help had arrived.

Scout Paul Guirguis had blown his whistle nonstop, attracting several nearby hikers, who assisted with CPR. David Phelps, who was still regaining his full range of motion, also helped blow the whistle. When the helicopters arrived, Patrick Holstein and other Scouts used tarps to guide them to a nearby meadow.

The Scouts' efforts were heroic, says Peter Collins, Ryan's father. "They performed CPR on their best friends." he says.

 

The Science of Lightning

Scientists don't understand all of the ingredients that cook up a lightning storm. But they do know that the electrical flashes typically begin with a mixture of ice and unstable air.

As the storm clouds build in the sky, sometimes rising as high as 10 miles, ice forms and becomes electrically charged. The smaller charged ice particles rise toward the top of the storm cloud. And the larger ones, such as hailstones, drop to the lower portion.

Meanwhile, charged particles begin to appear on the ground below the thunderstorm. Houses, soccer field goal posts, even people--all can become positively charged.

So how does lightning strike? The storm sends down a negative charge, basically searching for positive charges on the ground. That negative charge will descend toward the ground in a zigzag motion.

As it nears the ground, it searches for something to connect with, or strike, that's within 30 to 50 meters of the last branch point, says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, director of the lightning injury research program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, However, she cautions, it is possible to be struck even if you're not the highest point.