SANTA ANA — Kya Whitfield watched her daughter's team warm up on the softball diamond and saw the lightning in the distance.
When it started to rain steadily that April morning seven years ago, the Tustin Bobby Sox coach, John Bates, told his team to leave the field. He told two others to retrieve a couple of softballs still on the infield while he put equipment away.
The youngsters followed Bates' suggestions. Eight of them, and an assistant coach, gathered at the trunk of an oak tree to escape the rain.
They were there maybe 10 seconds before it happened.
The flash and the explosion came at the same time.
"When it hit, they all did a quarter turn all at the same time and fell on the ground," Whitfield recalled. "I kind of laughed--it was spontaneous, and the way they did it, it was kind of funny.
"I feel terrible. It bothers me a lot that my initial reaction was one of humor. I did a little chuckle: In my mind, I thought, 'Look at that, that's pretty good the way they did it in unison.' Then I realized what happened."
Whitfield was about 20 feet away when it struck the tree and dispersed into those standing near it. She ran to her daughter, Kaylee. It smelled "like burnt hair," she said, though Bates remembers the smell of burning polyester as the uniforms melted to the players' skin.
April 23, 1988, will always be a flash point in the lives of Carrie Bates, Beth Carrillo, Theresa Farnum, Katie Maggard, Wendy Meyers, Tiffany Thompson, Julie Throckmorton, Kaylee Whitfield--all between 8 and 10--and assistant coach Steve Nicolai. All were injured under that oak. Carrillo, Maggard and Whitfield stopped breathing.
Most of them were burned. But they all survived. Some continued to play sports, some did not.
This is one story of a little girl who set herself apart.
Kaylee Whitfield, a junior three-sport standout at El Modena, doesn't remember the lightning and doesn't have the psychological scars that affected some of the others.
"I remember leaning against the tree," Whitfield said. "And I remember waking up on the ground and my mom saying, 'Say something, Kaylee, say something,' and she was shaking me a little bit. And the ambulance guys cut my shirt off and wouldn't give me a towel, and they put me on a metal slate in the ambulance and it was \o7 sooo \f7 cold; they had nothing to keep me warm."
After the lightning hit, the sky opened up and it rained violently, as though it were hailing, and the mud splashed into the children's faces from the force of hitting the ground.
Kya Whitfield admits she was hysterical as she rushed to her daughter's side and saw her face turn from ashen to blue, her eyes already rolled into the back of her head. John Bates doesn't know why, but he went immediately to Kaylee instead of his daughter, Carrie, though she was also under the tree. He and Kya had learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation from the Red Cross within the past 60 days.
"I think John Bates is a hero," Kya said.
He began CPR on Kaylee until Kya was able to compose herself enough to assist. There were few parents there, but everyone on the field rushed to the scene and a few were able to give CPR to the others who needed it. Katie Maggard, one of the most seriously burned, was the first to be revived. Bates said it was 45 to 90 seconds before Kaylee was revived, "but it seemed like an eternity."
Now, Kya is amazed at how many things--and what things--flashed through her mind as she gave CPR to her child. "OK, if we don't have Kaylee, it's just going to be Jeff, Tara and I," she recalled thinking. "You think of vacations without her, not going to her school events--will she have brain damage?"
Another parent had a cellular phone and called 911. Within 20 minutes of the 11 a.m. lightning strike, Kaylee Whitfield and Beth Carrillo were in the same ambulance speeding toward the nearest emergency facility, Chapman General Hospital.
Kaylee was lucky--even though her heart stopped--because she was the only one who didn't suffer an exit wound from the lightning and need plastic surgery. Kya Whitfield said doctors were never able to determine why Kaylee was spared from being burned.
Kaylee, Maggard and Carrillo eventually were taken to Children's Hospital of Orange County because of the severity of their condition. The others went to Western Medical Center.
Kaylee's father, Jeff, was at home with his oldest daughter, Tara. They stayed home, figuring the rain would postpone the game at Edgewood Elementary (now Prentice Day) School. But one of Tara's friends was at the field that day. She called the Whitfields to tell Tara that lightning struck the team and mistakenly said someone had died.
Tara told her father. That's how he found out.
Kaylee spent two nights in the hospital--sharing the same room with three teammates, Tiffany Thompson, Beth Carrillo and Katie Maggard--and was the first to go home. The team voted to change its name from the Waves to the Shock Waves, and most rejoined the team even if they didn't play.