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Bright Flash. Bad Luck. Or Bad Karma.

Lightning Kills or Injures More People Than You Might Think, Leaving Victims to Wonder If They Were Unfortunate, or Unworthy

September 03, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | Times staff writer Martin Miller's last feature for the magazine was a plea for corporate sponsorship to defray the costs of raising his newborn son

Things happen for a reason or they don't. Guy Arnone believes they do. To him, there was a reason for the unseasonably warm weather that March day four years ago in Calabasas. There was a reason he jogged across his office parking lot through the rain. There was a reason he reached a spot about 15 feet from his Toyota Camry just after 4 p.m. The reason: He had to be struck by lightning.

Steve Nicolai doubts cosmic design lurked behind the lightning bolt that knocked him out more than a decade ago. It happened on a warm spring day in Tustin as Nicolai ran his daughter Julie's softball team through infield practice. He was pounding out grounders when he felt raindrops fall from partly cloudy skies. A dark, finger-shaped cloud rolled in over the diamond. He told Julie, the first baseman, to collect the balls and bases. Nicolai and the other coaches and players raced toward a 50-foot oak tree near third. A flash. No thunder. No bolts. Just a blinding light. He lay motionless for about a minute. When he came to, eight girls near the oak were down, and he smelled the pungent odor of burnt flesh. Julie was one of the few players not hit. "It wasn't like we were driving a car, made a lane change without signaling and caused an accident," Nicolai says. "It was just a freak occurrence."

Lightning hits the earth about 100 times every second. A few of those bolts even touch down here in Southern California, igniting forest fires, chasing surfers from the waves and riveting the attention of a populace more accustomed to nature attacking from below ground than above.

For most of human history, there's been little debate about whether lightning was a heaven-sent message or a random event. To ancient Greeks, thunderbolts were lethal punishment from the gods. The Romans saw them as a sign of condemnation and denied burial rites to those the bolts killed. In the Bible, God often fires warning shots of lightning at the immoral, as in these lines from Psalms: "He sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and He shot out lightnings and discomfited them."

Today, it's mainly the cinema that reinforces lightning as a tool of God or the Fates. In "Raiders of the Lost Ark," lightning annihilates Nazis but spares the righteous. In "The Natural," it bestows blessings. And when it's not a force for good or ill, it usually portends bad news or disaster. Thus, somewhere between mythic associations and personal experience, lightning survivors are left to make sense of falling victim to a cultural benchmark for the improbable.

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TO BEGIN TO APPRECIATE LIGHTNING SURVIVORS' EXISTENTIAL quandary, one must realize that everyone, metaphorically speaking, is struck. Pain, loss and death are inescapable, and any of them can come in the blink of an eye. For most people, thunderbolts hit in the form of a late-night telephone call or from the mouth of a doctor. As life's inevitable tragedies unfold, however, most have the incalculable benefit of knowing--or at least having strong clues as to--the reasons behind them. If it was a crime, someone else was to blame. If it was a car collision, someone--maybe you--could be faulted. In a case of terminal illness, someone should have taken better care of themselves or a doctor should have diagnosed it earlier. Such events often lead to a fevered search for meaning. Victims can obsess for months, indeed their entire lives, trying to answer an almost universal set of post-traumatic questions: "Why did this happen? Why am I suffering? Why me?" For lightning-strike survivors, this dynamic is magnified a thousand times. As one survivor puts it: "Who do I sue? God?"

Arnone did not think about anything for three days, not even God. Only later did the born-again Christian, a father of two, learn how he wound up in a hospital bed. In less than 1/1,000th of a second, lightning had raced through his body, head to toe, and shocked his heart into full cardiac arrest. He collapsed to the pavement, breaking his front teeth. Blood spilled from his right ear. When a bystander rolled him over, steam rose from his open mouth. Eyewitnesses were sure he was dead. They were right. "I was a flat line," he says.

It's estimated that of the 1,000 or so Americans struck by lightning every year, about 10% die (from cardiac arrest, the only direct way a strike causes death). Lightning is the second-leading weather-related killer of Americans in the past 40 years--ahead of hurricanes and tornadoes. Only floods have taken more lives.

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