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What’s it Like to Survive a Lightning Strike?

A heart-stopping bolt hits one hiker and levels a group of his friends who then fight to resuscitate him.
0613_skills_strucklightningillo_445x260Illustration by Noah Macmillan

The Victims Lightning struck 26-year-old Graham Austin and friends while they hiked the Appalachian Trail on July 3, 2011.

I couldn’t feel my legs. I looked at my shredded clothes and figured I’d been mauled by a bear. My muscles were taut as bowstrings when I tried to move. My wife Katy and friends crowded in and asked if I was all right, if I could say my name, if I knew where I lived. I gave answers they were looking for, but I had no idea what had happened to make them ask.

I’d set out that warm July morning with Katy and four friends to camp atop Roan Mountain State Park’s Little Hump Mountain, a short way off the Appalachian Trail near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It was my first overnight backpacking trip, but my experienced companions assured me that the 10-mile hike would be more than rewarded by the view from one of the South’s highest peaks [see page 71 for more on this area]. From Carver’s Gap, we hiked eight hours through rolling, shaded forests, passing picture-perfect campsites with fire rings, as well as one of the AT’s famous shelters—a classic red barn known as the Overmountain Shelter. We continued on with one goal in mind: a bald summit paradise covered with waist-high emerald grasses offering a 360-degree view of the Southern Appalachians.

Evening sunlight gilded the mountainside as we reached our hilltop campsite, and I reclined on the moist, therapeutic mattress of soil to enjoy it. Scattered dark clouds had passed overhead throughout our hike, but it wasn’t until we arrived at camp that I saw the sporadic flashes of lightning from the approaching storm. It looked at least 10 miles away, so I thought we’d have 20 minutes or more to set up camp before it rolled on top of us. Now I know better: If you can see lightning flash or hear thunder at all, and you’re unprotected outside—even in a tent—you’re taking a risk. If a storm is closer than 6 miles away, you’re in the strike zone. Sound travels a mile in about five seconds, so fewer than 30 seconds between lightning and thunder spells trouble. At the time, I also didn’t realize that lightning can strike from far away, out of the blue. I turned away from the clouds and started setting up my tent. Then everything went black.

It was minutes later when I awoke with blurry vision. I felt like I was coming out of anesthesia, and my muscles screamed in pain. My shirt was torn across my chest and the fly of my shorts was charred and peeled open. Katy and a friend, Joe, knelt next to me, relieved that I was awake. Katy told me I had been struck by lightning. We all had.

The multimillion-volt flash had flattened me and left a shovel-scoop-size divot in the soil 2 feet to my side. My companions had all been knocked momentarily unconscious by the electrical current traveling through the ground, but their distance from the strike had made their injuries less severe: one suffered a concussion from his fall and another bit into her tongue. When they found me at the nucleus of the scene, I was facedown and breathless, without a pulse. I had a half-inch-wide red burn from my forehead to my left foot, with a path of singed hair tracing where the current had traveled across my sweat-soaked skin.

Katy and Joe performed CPR to revive me. As I learned later, it was a long 30 seconds before my heart jumped to life. And Katy continued rescue breathing even after I first gasped for air, as I couldn’t control my respiration at first (it can take 30 minutes or more for strike victims to regain regular neurological functions). Even when I was breathing on my own, I wasn’t out of the woods yet: I was paralyzed from the waist down. My legs were turning a mottled eggplant purple from lack of blood flow, and my veins protruded like spider webs under my cold skin. Katy and several members of a passing group massaged my legs to revive circulation while Joe and a friend sprinted to call for rescue.

As my legs regained a healthy color, the storm rolled closer. We watched bolts explode atop surrounding summits, not realizing that we remained in grave danger. Our group didn’t discuss moving to a less vulnerable location, which should have been our top priority the minute we noticed the storm. While there’s nowhere outside that’s totally safe in a storm, we’d have been better off below the bald, where stands of uniform-height trees and rolling terrain offered better protection from another strike.

It was only 90 minutes after the strike that the volunteer rescue squad arrived to haul me down the mountain. Though I’d been scared about the numbness and paralysis of my lower limbs, my legs had regained some function by the time they carried me to the bottom of the mountain another hour and a half later, thanks to the quick response and perseverance of my companions. Next came 18 hours in the hospital, with EKGs, IV fluids, watching for retina detachment, and trying to excrete burned myoglobin in my urine. Although it took roughly a month for my muscles to recover, I walked out of the hospital with no lasting damage—besides my charred clothes, that is.

Key Skill: Keep your group safe.
Be aware of weather windows, check forecasts, and establish turnaround times, alternate routes, and points on your route that keep you away from exposed terrain during peak storm hours. Watch for safer terrain, and don’t wait for a storm to reach you before repositioning. If you’re caught in unexpected conditions and moving is unsafe—or your group is stuck on flat, open ground—spread at least 50 feet apart to prevent a single strike from incapacitating everyone, and assume the lightning position: Place your feet together, crouch low on a folded sleeping pad or insulator, and don’t touch nearby objects or conductors.

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