Multi-fatality lightning strikes are rare, but most have this in common

WEATHER NEWS: Multi-fatality lightning strikes are rare, but most have this in common


The lightning strike that killed three tourists and critically wounded a D.C. resident on Thursday was unusual not just because lightning fatalities have become increasingly rare in the United States but because a single strike rarely kills more than two people.

In fact, it had been nearly 20 years since three people were killed by a single lightning bolt, according to data from the National Lightning Safety Council. But when that does happen, the story is often eerily similar.

On June 27, 2004, nine people enjoying a day at Georgia’s Buford Dam Park huddled under a tree for safety as a storm approached. As the storm drew closer, lightning struck the tree, killing three people and lightly injuring six.

In both Thursday’s and the 2004 strikes, the victims made the mistake of gathering under a tree for shelter during a thunderstorm. This is true for all recent incidents in which three or more people were killed by a lightning strike, and the last time a fatal strike occurred in D.C.

Strangers huddled together under a tree. Then lightning struck.

Lightning is not attracted to trees, though it does often strike large trees, as they are typically among the tallest objects in an area. When a bolt hits a tree, the electric charge tends to unleash itself outward in what is called ground current.

Ground current “makes the entire area around a tree dangerous, and anyone standing under or near a tree is vulnerable to this potentially deadly ground current,” said John Jensenius, a specialist at the National Lightning Safety Council. “In addition, for those standing within several feet of a tree, the lightning charge, or a portion of the charge, can jump from the tree directly to the person.”

According to the National Weather Service, ground currents, not direct strikes, cause the most lightning-related deaths and injuries.

Four people were killed in 2002 after funeral-goers in Missouri sought shelter from a storm under a tree, and five were killed in 1994 when a West Virginia family that was out fishing sheltered under a tree as a storm approached.

Trees, unlike safer shelters such as a car or well-built structure, are not sturdy enough to withstand the brunt of a lightning strike. Those sheltering under a tree can be hit by the ground current or a side flash, which is when an electric current jumps from the much taller tree to the people sheltering just feet from its trunk. Cars and well-built homes instead channel the electric current from strikes safely into the ground.

Powerful lightning strikes can also blow trees apart, turning their wood into potentially dangerous projectiles.

When storms are in the forecast, be sure to constantly monitor the weather. If you hear thunder, even if a storm appears to be far away, it is time to stop all outdoor activities and move indoors to safe shelter, not under trees. Thirty minutes after the last sound of thunder, outdoor activities can resume.

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