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Hikers Find Death, Terror at Summit of Mt. Whitney

July 16, 1990|JANET RAE-DUPREE and EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LONE PINE, Calif. — As lightning lacerated the darkening sky over Mt. Whitney and thunderclaps started a deafening roll, the 13 hikers saw the old stone hut with its corrugated metal roof as a welcome refuge from the drenching downpour.

It nearly became their tomb.

"I was sitting on the floor, my back against one of the walls," said Edward (E.J.) Wueherer, a hiker from Tehachapi. "All of a sudden I saw this flash and I felt this jolt like on my funny bone, and my toe started burning.

"The next thing I knew I was helping to untangle bodies."

The surging electrical charge threw Matthew Edward Nordbrock, who had been seated in the center of the hut, several feet, where he lay still on the ground.

As the hikers had sprinted for cover during the squall Saturday afternoon, Nordbrock, 26, of Huntington Beach, told one of his hiking buddies: "I've been hit by lightning before, so I won't get struck."

He died several hours later, after being removed from the 14,495-foot summit by helicopter.

The hikers had come from all over California, looking for a physical challenge, some scenery, fresh air and, perhaps, a touch of adventure on the rugged slopes of the eastern High Sierra.

But their carefree day trip Saturday to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, instead became a nightmare.

Traveling in five separate groups, 15 hikers suffered through a hellish afternoon and evening when a sudden electrical storm--called "extremely dangerous" by the National Weather Service--trapped them in two locations as it rained down lightning bolts.

Several others in the hut with Nordbrock were momentarily paralyzed when the lightning struck, and the bolt carved bite-sized chunks of flesh from hiker James MacLeod's shoulders, back and underarm.

MacLeod, 24, of Long Beach, required emergency resuscitation to survive, as did Terry Nabours, 32, of Laguna Hills, who was trapped on a different part of the mountain. Lightning hit Nabours as he huddled with his brother-in-law under a rock outcropping.

While the hut sheltered the hikers from the rainstorm, its corrugated steel roof was a lightning rod, attracting a bolt that can discharge as much as 100-million volts. The flash of energy left everyone in the group with first- and second-degree burns.

The lightning strike also slightly injured James MacLeod's brother, Glen, 37, of Long Beach, and their friend Calif Tervo, 44, of San Diego; Kent Kroener, 23, Steven Hellman, 23, and James Swift, 24, all of Huntington Beach; Doris Hertz, 35, and Linda Padgett, 36, of San Francisco; Morgan Milligan, 35, of Orinda; Wueherer's wife, Yoshiko Otonari, 29, and Michael Heil, 37, of California City.

Milligan and Tervo hiked down the mountain to seek help Saturday night. Nordbrock, Swift and James MacLeod were removed from the summit by helicopter. The others spent the night in the hut, and helicopters removed them at daybreak.

All were treated at Southern Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine, a small town at the base of Mt. Whitney, and released.

James MacLeod said he remembered sitting against a wall of the hut, talking with the other hikers for about 30 minutes as the storm raged outside.

His next memory, he said Sunday, was of his companions' faces staring down at him, asking him questions. His fellow hikers told him he had been unconscious for at least 20 minutes.

"Every article of clothing I have has holes in it, except my shoes," he said. "Every muscle in my body must have contracted. I'm sore all over."

MacLeod said doctors told him the electrical charge entered his right shoulder, where a four-inch-diameter wound was visible, and caused nearly a dozen smaller wounds where it exited his body.

"It's unbelievable what it did to me," he said. "It's so scary to think about how it just went right through me."

MacLeod said he, his brother, and Tervo had driven to Lone Pine on Friday night and slept in their cars at Whitney Portal, the mountain's eastern trail head.

They set out on the 10.6-mile trek to the summit at 8 a.m. in clear, hot weather. About three-quarters of the way up the mountain, the men noticed a storm brewing over distant peaks.

"We heard thunder at a distance, but we didn't think much of it," James MacLeod recalled. "When it started raining, our first thought was to get dry. I guess we should have thought about our own well-being."

Seeing the hut through the rain and hail, the trio took refuge with the other hikers.

Wueherer, 32, said the group began discussing whether the hut would be safe in a thunderstorm, shortly before the bolt scored an apparent direct hit.

"It actually seemed to be abating," Wueherer said of the storm. "I was figuring 'Oh, it's over.' "

But the disaster had just begun.

"We knew right away what had happened, and we just started dealing with it," Wueherer said of the lightning strike.

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