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With Summer Comes Lightning Season--Will You Be In for a Shock? : Nature: Up to 300 people in the United States are killed by the phenomenon each year. Safest bet: Head for cover.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This is the season when nature gets angry in a very random and violent way. At any given moment around the world there are more than a thousand storms, and those storms give birth to lightning. And lightning kills.

In fact, in the United States, 100 to 300 people are killed by lightning each year, making it one of the weather's worst killers. Although figures vary, the number of Americans injured each year may run as high as 1,500.

Lightning starts about 10,000 forest fires a year in this country alone.

On average, every commercial airliner is struck in flight at least once a year.

Although lightning strikes are fatal in fewer than one in three cases, people who have been hit are not likely to treat it lightly again.

John Durocher was 30 feet away huddled under a tree when a lightning bolt killed his identical twin on a golf course fairway.

"Paul was swinging with an iron when it hit us," says Durocher, 29, of Waterford, Mich. "I was in a coma for 18 hours afterward and don't remember much about it. The hard part was losing my twin. It was like losing a part of me."

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, a lightning expert and associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago, says as many as 300 Americans die by lightning each year, although the National Safety Council says the average toll is closer to 100.

Most lightning deaths occur from May through September, when thunderstorms are most frequent, and during the day, when more people are outdoors.

Open areas, such as golf courses, are especially vulnerable. A lightning stroke killed one and injured five others huddled beneath a lone willow near the 11th tee during the opening round of this year's U. S. Open in Chaska, Minn. in June.

Lightning nearly killed professional golfer Lee Trevino during the Western Open near Chicago in 1975. A strike flashed off a lake, traveled up the shafts of his clubs and hit him in the shoulder.

About 70% of the people who get hit by lightning live to tell about their experiences, though many suffer lingering aftereffects, according to Cooper.

"Superheated air from lightning can turn the sweat on your body to steam, blast off your clothes and literally knock your socks off," says Dr. John Prescott, director of emergency medical services at West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown.

Prescott, a former military emergency physician at Ft. Bragg, N. C., has treated about 150 lightning-strike survivors, more than most doctors see during a career. Heart failure kills most lightning-strike victims, Prescott says.

"I'd say you're not going to die from a lightning strike unless you go into cardiac arrest," he said.

Even if a bolt isn't fatal, the millions or billions of volts in a single strike can cook nerves and blood vessels, damage the brain, cause cataracts, rupture eardrums, break bones and sizzle skin--all in under a second.

"It literally can affect every organ in the body," Prescott says.

It also can produce some strange side effects.

Edwin Robinson, 73, of Falmouth, Me., who gradually lost his sight and hearing after his truck jackknifed and crashed through a guard rail in 1971, claims he saw the light again after being zapped by lightning in his yard in 1980.

"Before I got struck, the doctors told me I would never see or hear again," Robinson says. "A day after it happened they said I had perfect eyesight and perfect hearing."

Doctors had been at a loss to explain Robinson's fading sight and diminished hearing. Several physicians questioned by a Boston newspaper a month after Robinson regained his senses said he exhibited classic symptoms of hysterical blindness and deafness.

The victims of hysterical reactions are not faking, but there is no apparent physical cause for their condition.

Keith Dalton temporarily lost the use of his left leg when he and 23 other members of the Kingwood Pike Coon Hunters Club were walloped by a bolt as they crouched under a steel-roofed pavilion during a thunderstorm.

"I was hanging from a beam when the next thing I knew the lightning picked up my feet and pulled me up toward the roof," says Dalton, a 24-year-old welder from Morgantown.

"It was all lit up," he says. "It looked like a spark plug coming off the roof and going through everybody's heads. Everyone had blue sparks coming from them. It was really something to see."

After the strike, Dalton thought his companions, most of whom lay moaning on the ground, were dying.

"It seemed to take a long time, but it was really only a second," Dalton says. "One guy was choking on his chewing tobacco and turned black."

All 24 lived. Only one was admitted to a hospital overnight for observation.

"It kind of felt like you were in a microwave," Dalton says. "You got real warm inside. All I wanted to do was drink water afterward."

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