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A Jolting Way to Beat the Odds

Nature: The chance of two lightning strikes is about 6.17 in 1 billion, but one man hit a daily double--and lived.

July 05, 2001|From The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — He has parried the thunderbolts of Thor, been zapped by Zeus; he must be some kind of superman.

Or he is an incredibly hapless human--and God is really, really mad at him.

This much we know: Paul Williams was struck by lightning the other day. For the second time.

The storm was getting nasty, just like the first time. Because the wind was howling, the river surf was churning, the raindrops were fat and hard, the sky was a dirty, unmade bed--because of all that, he sprinted down to the Potomac River dock about 5 p.m. Saturday.

His dash broke virtually every single safety rule promulgated by the National Weather Service for the nation's first Lightning Awareness Week, which was the week before. Williams wasn't thinking about Lightning Awareness Week.

He was thinking about his sailboat, a 22-foot Catalina named Jibs Seas, Ample Breeze. (He's a fan of Cher, who sang "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves," and he can do an excellent Cher imitation of the name of his boat.) The craft was beginning to buck like a stallion in the wind and the whitecaps. It wasn't tied properly. When Williams and his friends docked hours earlier, the sky was clear and the river calm. Now he wanted to secure the boat against the storm.

Suddenly, he was lying on his back, and the world was silent. The clouds were soft and gray--he could see. But he couldn't hear. The whistling wind, the staccato smack of the rain on the river, the rolling thunder were gone. It was as if Someone had turned the volume all the way down.

He still existed: He could think, therefore he was. He guessed he'd been struck by lightning, and he had two more thoughts like folded notes that he opened one by one.

"Start your heart."

"Start breathing."

It was very quiet and he couldn't move.

What are the chances?

"About 6.17 in 1 billion."

That's Tapan Nayak talking. He's a professor of statistics at George Washington University. He used probability models to come up with the odds that you will be struck by lightning twice in your lifetime.

You are much more likely to win the Powerball jackpot. That happens about once every 80,089,128 times you bet, according to the District of Columbia Lottery.

The odds of being struck once in a given year are about 1 in 700,000, and 1 in 9,000 over your lifetime, according to the weather service.

The bad season begins around now, when people are determined to have fun outside despite the weather. Lightning kills about 73 Americans annually and injures at least 300, with many more nonlethal strikes not reported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A bolt from the blue begins when a powerful negative charge masses at the bottom of a thundercloud, attracting a positive charge on the ground. An ionized channel opens between cloud and ground, and lightning forks through. A single bolt can strike 10 miles ahead of the storm, firing down more than 250 kilowatt-hours of energy.

David Perruzza was watching inside the house nearby as Williams, 35, joined by Josh Buckman, 21, struggled to tie up the Catalina in the storm.

Suddenly a fluorescent blue bolt reached like the finger of God from the smoky clouds to a point on the dock between Williams and Buckman. There was a tremendous crash and the two men dropped like limp dolls.

"At first we thought they were faking," says Perruzza, 25.

Then some of the eight people in the house bolted for the dock and carried the victims inside.

Paramedics arrived, then a helicopter, for a trip to Washington Hospital Center. James Jeng, associate director of the hospital's burn unit, says the most serious damage from lightning can be beneath the surface. Muscles can be "cooked" to a point at which they are useless. Limbs may have to be amputated. Kidneys can fail. There can be heart and neurological damage.

Doctors determined that Williams and Buckman suffered second-degree burns but probably no permanent damage. Their muscles still tingle and they have reddish streaks resembling severe sunburn that begin at the left armpit and ribs and run intermittently to the right leg. Both say their hearing isn't normal yet.

Another property of lightning: It did not singe their swim trunks. It shredded them.

To be struck twice is not only to enter a rare pantheon--it is also to inhabit a cliche. If lightning never strikes twice in the same place, what does it mean when it strikes twice someone who's walking around?

The first time lightning struck Williams, he was an eighth-grader on a Boy Scout trip in the Adirondacks. A thunderstorm blew in. The Scouts were two to a tent. Williams was standing in his tent holding a Chinese checkerboard, and his tent-mate was on the other side of the shelter. Suddenly the two boys were picked up and thrown into each other in the middle of the tent and dumped on the ground. The same thing happened to the 13 other campers in their tents, including Williams' father.

No one was hospitalized, but their limbs felt like pins and needles, and they had trouble walking. It wasn't as direct a hit as the second one, but Williams felt the charge. It counts.

When Williams' father heard about the second strike, he said, "Oh no, not again." His mother started laughing.

"We're all laughing about it," Williams says. "It's the only way we can deal with it."

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