There are probably a lot of people out there who have had a lot more opportunity to be in the close proximity of a lightening strike than I. But when I was stationed at Keesler AFB in Mississippi, lighting was a part of every day life, particularly in the summer months when thunderstorms would role in off the gulf late in the afternoon. I mean you could almost set your watch by it. Every so often, you would hear about somebody getting hit with lightening, and it was almost always a fatal experience for the poor soul.
"In the United States, an average of 62 people are killed each year by lightning.
In 2006, there were 47 confirmed deaths and 246 confirmed injuries." *
I guess its' one of those things you never think will happen to you, until it does, like winning the lottery. Well the fact of the matter is, and I hate to have to tell you, the odds of being struck by lightening in any given year are at least 50 times grater than your odds of winning the lottery. Put another way, you can expect to be hit by lightning 50 times, before you will ever win the lotto. Any Way, back to my story.
Now I could tell you about quite a few instances when I was too close for comfort to a lightening strike, but there was one occasion back in 1973, vividly etched in my memory, and I can recall the unfolding of the event with perspicuous clarity. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and I and my wife had been doing the usual Saturday chores, including a few loads of laundry at a Laundromat across the way from our apartment. It was a great location, right down on the beach and next door to the Sheraton Hotel. In just a matter of minutes the Sun disappeared, and the sky darkened, as is usually the case when a thunder storm comes over; but this one was a little radical. I mean it got dark as night, and started raining buckets. The misses, suggested that I should go get the close from the Laundromat before the water in the parking lot got to deep. When it rains down in Biloxi, it is not uncommon for the water in the streets to get a foot deep, and sometimes more.
I opened the door and headed out. The wind was really blowing, so I looked to see if there were any funnel clouds near by, another little attribute of big thunder storms. If there were any, I couldn't see them. I could see light way off on the horizon, but where I was, it might as well have been night. I ran across the apartment courtyard and out in the parking lot. Yikes! The water was already a foot deep and flowing fast. Each step I took I could feel the swift current up ending me. It was about 50 yards over to the laundromat, and I probably broke some kind of record getting there. I burst through the metal framed glass doors and bent over, grabbing my knees to catch my breath.
All of a sudden the entire building was filled with a brilliant light, such as I had never witnessed before. It seemed to last for a long time like I was in suspended animation or something, but I think it had to be a case of retinal retention, an effect I had experienced in a photographic darkroom before. Let me explain, take your digital camera, go into a pitch black room, where you can't see your hand in front of your face. Look in one direction, and then click the camera aperture button to cause the flash to fire off. What ever is in front of you when the flash fires, will be retained on your retina, and you will see the image for several minutes after, or until you turn on a light, no matter what direction you look in. This effect is called retinal image retention, and the lightening in that laundromat was so bright that I am convinced that something like that had taken place. Any way, I couldn't tell you if it was 1 second later or ten, there was an incredible boom as though somebody had just dropped a wrecking ball on the top of that laundromat, and this boom reverberating off into the distance, left the building rumbling as though it have been hit by a 4.0 earthquake. Having grown up in California, I had acquired a good internal gage of such. Now I was beginning to think that earthquakes might be a little less frightening then what I was going through at the moment.
As the sound of the thunder clap was dissipating, I began to have an eerie, tingly feeling. I guess its kind of like that feeling you get when you bump your funny bone except in spades, and all over your body. I had by this time been shocked plenty of times in life but this was different. The florescent lights in the laundromat had gone off at first but now they were sort of back on. I say sort-of, because they were flickering as though one or more of them was burned out, or the ballast was arcing or something. Then I saw something really weird that I have never seen before. It looked kind of like those sparklers that kids play with on 4th of July, but the little sparks coming off of it never went to far, and kind of rolled over back into the thing. It would zoom across the ceiling, following those metal strips that hold the tiles in place, first in one direction and then in another. Then a couple more of these things appeared and all of them made a beeline for the front of the building and then seemed to shoot down the metal frames around the large plate glass windows. I would later learn that this phenomenon is called "Saint Elmo's Fire."
I had realized by this time that the building had been hit by lightening. At this point, every hair on my body was standing erect, but I couldn't say for sure if it had anything to do with the electricity from the lightening strike, or the fact that my adrenal gland had probably dumped a months worth of adrenaline into my blood stream; and the old ticker was pumping like a Baldwin 4-4-0 with a full head of steam and a full load of coal in the fire box. It was about this time that I saw a lady jumping up from her chair in the back of the laundromat, where she had casually been reading a news paper. We stared at each other for a moment, and then I blurted out to her: "don't touch anything." Being in electronics, I realized immediately that all the metal in the building, including the washers and dryers conduct electricity, and had likely been charged up to a high static voltage potential by the strike, perhaps even tens of thousands of volts. The lady and myself standing on the concrete floor topped with asphalt tile had been insulated, and therefore might be at a different potential then the metal in the building. Touching the metal could have produced a pretty good jolt, enough to make your heart skip a few beats or worse. I explained this to the lady and she understood.
When the lights finally stopped flickering and the building went dark inside, I new it was probably safe to exit the building, and perhaps not a bad idea. The lady wanted to get her stuff out of a washer, but I said you might want to come back and get it later, and she agreed. Leading the lady to the front of the building I went to push open the door, but noticed it's metal frame was hot. I went an got a towel from on of the dryers that had our clothes in it and used it to push the door open. The lady headed in one direction, and I in the other. By the time I made it back to our apartment, I was drenched.
Twenty minutes later the storm had moved inland and the sun was shining again. You could still here the thunder off in the distance, but the water in the parking lot had all drained away and everything was pretty much back to normal. I headed back over to the laundromat to get our clothes. There were a bunch of people hanging around now, and some commotion taking place on the side of the building. I walked over to see what was going on. Everybody was looking at a transformer on a power pole right next to the building. The top twenty feet of the pole itself was slit into several pieces and blackened. The top of the pole was still smoldering. There was a whole, maybe a little bigger than a golf ball, blown clean through the transformer, and you could see the sky through it. I walked back to the front door to get the clothes, but a policeman ran over and stopped me saying "where you think your going; boy," with that unmistakable Mississippi drawl. I explained to him that I had been in the laundromat when the lightening strike occurred and was just returning to pick up my clothes. "Your pretty lucky to be alive, boy," the man said as he pushed open the door for me. I guess so, I replied.
Yeah; I've been around a few other lightening strikes in my life, but never as close as I was to that one, and I can tell you that its not an experience I think I would ever want to go through again.