published Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Summerville, Ga., youth was struck by lightning, and lived to tell

Madison Smith, 14, stands outside of her family's apartment complex in Summerville, Ga. Lightning struck the complex last week and an electrical current shot into the building's wiring and shocked Madison, who was sitting inside.
Madison Smith, 14, stands outside of her family's apartment complex in Summerville, Ga. Lightning struck the complex last week and an electrical current shot into the building's wiring and shocked Madison, who was sitting inside.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

238 -- Number of people struck and killed by lightning in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012

26 -- Fishing-related lightning deaths

15 -- Camping-related lightning deaths

14 -- Boating-related lightning deaths

12 -- Soccer-related lightning deaths

12 -- Around the home-, yard work-related lightning deaths

11 -- Beach-related lightning deaths

11 -- Ranching/farming-related lightning deaths

8 -- Golf-related lightning deaths

Source: National Weather Service

DEBUNKING MYTHS:

Myth #1 -- If I see lightning far away, I still have time to pack up my things and head to shelter.

Lightning can strike 10 miles from a thunderstorm. If the morning's forecasts show a strong chance of thunder before you head outside for the day, be diligent in how you plan your activities and keep your eyes peeled for changes in the weather. Always calculate how long it will take you to get from your boat or your trail back to your car. If you see storms developing, head straight for shelter.

Myth #2 -- Lying down on the ground or crouching down can protect you.

Lying on the ground only increases your exposure to ground currents after a lightning strike, and reducing your height by 2 or 3 feet by crouching doesn't do much to change your odds. The best thing to do is to move quickly toward safe shelter.

Myth #3 -- Rubber (like tires or a mat) can absorb a lightning strike and protect you. There is no protection from rubber. You are safe inside of a car because it is a metal enclosure.

Myth #4 -- Someone who has been struck by lightning carries an electrical charge.

A lightning strike victim is perfectly safe to touch after they are hit, and they need care immediately. If the person is not responding, immediately apply CPR and call 911 as soon as you are able.

Myth #5 -- Lightning is attracted to metal.

Lightning is attracted to the tallest, most isolated object in an area. It doesn't have to be metal -- it could be trees. If shelter is nowhere close, head for a grove of shorter trees as opposed to taller ones. But seeing as 25 percent of lightning victims are struck while seeking shelter under an isolated tree, it is better to head as fast as you can to an enclosed shelter as soon as you see signs of a thunderstorm.

Myth #6 -- It's good to unplug electronics during a thunderstorm.

It's good to unplug electronics BEFORE a thunderstorm -- but not during. Doing so puts you at greater exposure to electrical currents if the house is hit. But do get off your computer or hang up a corded phone.

Source: National Weather Service

The kids at school have started calling her Electra. Thunder Girl. Bolt. Lightning McQueen.

They've been trying to touch her shoulder where electricity from a lightning bolt surged into her and left a nickel-sized burn framed by spidery red streaks.

The mark has faded, says 14-year-old Madison Smith, who was struck while inside her family's Summerville, Ga., apartment last week. But her memory of the flashing light and the stinging pain is clear.

Smith and a Summerville man were shocked by lightning within minutes of each other during a sudden lightning storm that swept over the small Chattooga County town Aug. 12.

Both are OK, but their stories are a testament to the sheer power and unpredictable danger of the world's most ancient source of electricity.

"I've heard that lightning may strike the same person twice," Smith said, smiling and rubbing the spot in her shoulder where she says the shock entered. "That makes me nervous."

The sky was light gray and a little drizzly when several of Smith's siblings and friends asked if they could go play outside. There hadn't been any thunder or lightning, so their uncle let them. Smith stayed inside on the couch, watching TV.

Five minutes hadn't passed before a loud crack and bright flashes exploded outside, then inside the apartment. Her uncle flew out the door to check on the kids. They were fine, but when they returned to the apartment, Smith was screaming and clutching her left shoulder.

"I couldn't get her to tell me what happened," said her uncle, Steven Prince. "Then she showed me that burn on her shoulder."

The lightning strike had hit the building's electrical wiring, cracking light bulbs and zapping the neighbors' electronics. Smith had been sitting by a part of the wall where wiring was installed.

When the ambulance arrived, she couldn't answer first responders. It wasn't until later, when she had IVs in her arm and the EKGs were being performed, that her head cleared.

Paramedics said that within minutes and just up the road, a 35-year-old man was thrown back as he touched the metal door of another lightning-struck building. He left the hospital after a few tests.

Roughly 300 people are struck by lightning each year in the United States and an average of 30 die, weather analysts say. Most lightning fatalities occur between June and August.

"A lot of these people who are struck are with their families," said Donna Franklin, program manager for the National Weather Service's Lightning Safety Awareness Program. "They're at the beach, they're camping, they're fishing -- it's summer. But the bottom line is that there is no safe place outside."

Indoor strikes like Smith's are rare, but possible, Franklin said. Wiring and plumbing may carry current into a kitchen sink or shower, she said,

Locally, reports of people being treated for lightning strikes are rare. Erlanger hospital, which is the region's Level 1 trauma center, has reported only five lightning-strike patients in as many years.

The Hamilton County Health Department has not reported any deaths directly due to lightning strike in the last decade.

Most people who die of lightning strikes are killed when the huge surge of electricity stops their heart stop, medical research shows.

That surge, or subsequent oxygen loss, also can hurt the brain.

"Lightning tends to be a nervous-system injury and may affect any or all parts of the nervous system," said Stacy Prater, a flight paramedic with Erlanger's LifeForce air ambulance crew.

There may be no clear signs of injury after a strike. Unlike high-voltage electrical injuries, which can cause major tissue damage, lightning itself rarely causes substantial burns, Prater said.

But even if external signs aren't obvious, people struck by lightning should always seek medical help, Prater cautioned.

"If they do not present with any obvious injuries, they still need to have other testing ... to help determine if there has been any internal damage," he said.

And the impact may not show up for a while. Some victims report that neurological effects from a lightning strike weren't evident until years after the initial shock, when they developed symptoms like ADD, memory loss, depression and irritability.

"There is a whole realm of injury -- from a little bit of shock to the point where someone is severely injured, with debilitating pain for years," said weather service meteorologist John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist.

The weather service began more closely tracking the data surrounding lightning fatalities in 2006. It also tries to keep track of lightning injuries -- but it's a tough task because many go unreported.

Jensenius recently compiled a report with the six years' worth of data, gleaning a wealth of information about where people are and what they're doing when lightning strikes.

Some of the revelations have been surprising. Jensenius found that the sport associated with the most lightning fatalities is not golf, as commonly thought, but fishing. He also discovered that the rate of lightning strike fatalities is particularly high in the Southeast.

One curious finding was that males accounted for 82 percent of fatalities -- which doesn't speak so much about God's wrath as it does to their participation in outdoor sports, researchers say.

One tragic discovery was the sheer number of stricken people who are on their way to or very near safety.

"Lightning can strike 10 miles from a thunderstorm. That's something people don't realize. It can be difficult to gauge how fast these storms are moving," Jensenius said.

Each year, the agency has targeted more awareness campaigns toward sports groups and family councils.

Jensenius says the number of fatalities has gradually declined over the years. So far in 2013, 14 people have died -- a markedly low number this far into the year.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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