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An Awesome Flame
Everybody's afraid of lightning. Maybe it's built into the genes. It's a primal fear.
—DR. MARTIN UMAN
Lightning descends upon the American landscape in fiery arcs across the Great Plains on lonely summer nights and in brilliant streaks over the Rocky Mountains on lazy afternoons. It's also embedded in our oldest myths.
The stars are the campfires of the dead, and when we die, the great Thunderbird, lightning flashing from its eyes, carries our souls to the Milky Way. According to another Native legend, the Sun, father of twin boys, gave them magic arrows—lightning that strikes crooked and lightning that strikes straight. One day, the twins heard rumbling like the sound of an earthquake. It was the wake of the giant Yeitso3, who had smelled their scent. "How shall I kill them?" the giant wondered. He fired four arrows at the boys, but they missed.
Then the boy named Born of Water shot his own arrow and hit Yeitso. And the boy named Monster Slayer shot his arrow and it killed the giant. Afterward, the twins slayed other monsters with their magical arrows, and they made a huge thunderstorm sweep across the land. When the storm ended, a place called the Grand Canyon existed where once other terrible creatures had lived.
Memories of the indiscriminate power and terrible fascination of lightning have remained with me since childhood. When I rode on horseback in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northern New Mexico—the ancestral home of the Apaches, the Navajos, and the Pueblo Indians—thunderbolts flashed and crackled around me, and I feared I would never return home. The drama of the never-ending Southwestern sky and its storms—absent in the Northeast, where I have lived most of my life—shaped me in ways I am still exploring.
Ever since, I've wondered about the mysteries of lightning. What causes lightning, and what attracts and repels it? How can we protect against lightning, and when is it most dangerous? Why would one person walking in a field be struck and killed by lightning during a storm while his companion walks away unharmed? What happens physically to someone after being struck?
In his great novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder observes that most "occasions of human woe had never been quite fit for scientific examination. They had lacked what our good savants were later to call proper control." As he ponders the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey, which killed several travelers in eighteenth-century Peru, Wilder's alter ego in the novel, Brother Juniper, collects "thousands of little facts and anecdotes and testimonies" to try to learn "why God had settled upon that person and upon that day for His demonstration of wisdom."
Lightning, too, was most often considered in earlier periods of history to be a pure act of God, beyond scientific explanation. Today, the discoveries of science and medicine have altered our perspectives far beyond Brother Juniper's imaginings.
Still, being struck inevitably raises existential questions about life and death, destiny and divine retribution. What did I do to deserve this? What should I do now? After all, when lightning strikes, there is no human cause. Believing that the testimony of survivors would yield the "thousands of little facts and anecdotes" underlying the human dimension of lightning, I set out on a journey to record their stories. Their accounts reveal a remarkable blend of willful choice and random coincidence, science and superstition. They tell of heroism, pain, hope, and sacrifice. Above all, they tell of their own inspiring spiritual changes.
At least forty-four people were killed by lightning in the United States in 2007. The reported number is lower than the actual number because some deaths due to lightning are not recorded as such. Lightning is the second-leading cause of fatalities in the U.S. related to violent weather. It causes more deaths than earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Only floods kill more people. But unlike these other natural disasters, lightning strikes are small, private tragedies, reserved for the unlucky few.
Lightning set my underclothes on fire," Roy Sullivan told a rapt audience watching the 1980s TV show That's Incredible! "Now, if you say that's not hot, I'd like to know what hot is."
A longtime ranger in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Sullivan was born in Greene County, Virginia, on February 7, 1912. He was first hit by lightning in 1942, standing in a park lookout tower. He was lucky. His only injury was the loss of a big toenail. A brawny man with a broad, rugged face, Sullivan, who resembled the actor Gene Hackman, was struck again in 1969 while driving along a mountain road. This time the lightning only singed his eyebrows. But a year later, the outdoorsman was walking across his yard when lightning struck again, searing his left shoulder.
The fourth strike occurred in 1972, while Sullivan was working in a ranger station in Shenandoah National Park. It set his hair on fire, and he had to grab a bucket of water and pour it over his head to extinguish the flames. "I can be standing in a crowd of people, but it'll hit me," he said at the time. "I'm just allergic to lightning."
In 1973, while he was out on patrol in the park, Sullivan saw a storm cloud forming and drove away quickly. But the cloud, he said later, seemed to be following him. When he finally thought he had outrun it, he decided it was safe to leave his truck, but again he was struck. "I actually saw the bolt that hit me," he said. The next strike, the sixth, came in 1974 while he was checking a campsite near the Skyline Drive and left him with an injured ankle.
Then one Saturday morning in 1977, when he was fishing in a freshwater pool, lightning struck Sullivan for the seventh time—hitting the top of his head and traveling down his right side. With his hair singed and burns on his chest and stomach, he hurried to his car. But still he kept his wits about him. He later told a reporter that as he stumbled back down the trail, a bear appeared and tried to steal three trout from his fishing line. But Sullivan had the strength and courage to strike the bear with a branch. He recalled that it was the twenty-second bear he had hit on the head during his lifetime.
Sullivan owns a place in the Guinness World Records, not for the number of times he's decked a bear but for the distinction of being struck by lightning more recorded times than any other human being. Some reports state that he was hit an eighth time in the early 1980s. "Naturally people avoided me," he once recalled. "For instance, I was walking with the chief ranger one day when lightning struck way off. The chief said, 'I'll see you later.' "
On the one hand, Sullivan seemed to attract lightning. (He was dubbed "the human lightning rod" by the media.) On the other hand, he appeared to have some natural physical defense against its effects—despite the number of times he was struck, he wasn't killed or even seriously injured. A member of the Shenandoah Heights Baptist Church, Sullivan had conflicting thoughts about his own fate. He believed that an unseen force was trying to destroy him, and he became convinced after the fourth strike that the next bolt would kill him. Still, he once told a reporter, "I don't believe God is after me. If He were, the first bolt would have been enough."
After supposedly being rejected by the woman he loved, or perhaps from the fear and dread of future strikes, Roy Sullivan shot and killed himself in 1983 at the age of seventy-one. He was living at the time in a town called Dooms.
Linda Cooper seems to have it all. She is happily married and lives in an upscale neighborhood of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She has three daughters and three grandchildren. She likes her job as a computer lab supervisor at the local elementary school and generally enjoys life.
And yet, she suffers. Linda Cooper has been hit by lightning four times in her life. No other woman, as far as is known, has been struck as many times. Men account for about four times more lightning fatalities and injuries than women, as men are more likely to engage in agriculture, construction, and recreational outdoor activities.
I am sitting on a bench with Linda Cooper in a hallway of the MainStay Suites in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where a conference for lightning survivors is taking place. She is wearing a tailored red jacket, a blue dress, and a silver necklace. She speaks with a slight Southern accent and is poised and attractive. Complimented that at fifty-seven she looks ten years younger than her age, she replies brightly, "Makeup and curlers do wonders."
Cooper was born in Atlanta in 1950 and grew up in Miami. She was first struck by lightning on September 15, 1983, which had been a typical September day in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida—dismal and gray. It had been raining on and off all morning, and just after one p.m. it started to sprinkle again.
Setting out on a round of errands, Cooper had parked her car in front of the Coral Ridge post office, where she was going to mail a package. When she stepped onto the sidewalk, "it was like a hand grenade going off in my face," she recalls. "All I remember is a blinding white light and the loudest sound I have ever heard or could ever imagine hearing."
The next thing she knew, she was standing up, brushing off her dress, and wondering why she was all wet. Confused and in shock, she walked into the post office. On her way in, she turned and saw a man in his car staring at her. "On his face was a look of horror." They never spoke and he drove away quickly. But to this day, Cooper wonders what he saw.
She went up to the counter to mail her package and told the clerk that she had just been hit by lightning. "We know," the clerk replied. "It shook the building." Lightning had struck a flagpole and walloped Cooper on the left side of her head.
Cooper then returned to her car and drove to her aerobics class. (Remarkably, shock victims often continue their daily routines immediately after being struck.) Afterward, she telephoned an HMO clinic and described what had happened. Since she seemed to have recovered from the shock, the doctor told her that she would be all right.
Feeling "weird," she nevertheless went the next day to the preschool where she worked. After classes had ended, a parent came into the office and stood close by. Looking puzzled, she said, "I feel electricity but I can't tell where it's coming from." Cooper crossed to the other side of the room and asked if the woman still felt it. "No," she answered, "it's coming from you."
Still feeling peculiar, Cooper went to a doctor a few days later, who told her that she looked fine and that she had just bruised herself. When Cooper said that her leg hurt, the doctor replied, "You probably twisted your ankle; try to stay off it."
Three weeks passed and Cooper still felt unwell. She couldn't keep her eyes open, couldn't get out of bed. "I was sick as a dog and all I wanted to do was die." She finally went to the hospital, where, she recalls, "they freaked out.
"My back had turned blue, black, purple-green. They started doing every kind of test imaginable and they kept me in the hospital for six days, after which they said, 'You're lucky to be alive,' and sent me home."
For nine months, she suffered massive headaches and terrible pain. Finally she saw a neurologist who prescribed phenerol, a mild narcotic, which she took for a little while. But it didn't help relieve her feelings of being isolated and alone, a common complaint among lightning survivors.
"If I had a cast on my arm or leg, people would have had compassion, but seeing no outward signs of anything wrong, they were a bit tired of my situation."
Cooper tried to resume her normal life, but things had changed dramatically. She couldn't remember how to add and subtract. (Again, a common occurrence.) When she went shopping, a friend had to accompany her to complete her sentences. She and her husband divorced and she changed jobs. The first year after the strike was "a year of hell." Physically, mentally, emotionally, she was exhausted and in pain.
Some years later her daughter telephoned and said, "Mama, they want you to be on The Oprah Winfrey Show because they are looking for people who have survived terrible accidents, and you need to do it because it's all about you." Cooper hesitated at first but finally agreed. On the show she met a survivor named Edwin Robinson, who in 1980 had gone into his backyard during a thunderstorm, when lightning ricocheted off a tree and hit him. He claimed that when he regained consciousness the bolt had improved his vision and his hearing. He told her about an organization called at the time Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Victims International, which assisted people who had suffered from lightning injuries. She contacted the group and was helped tremendously by talking with other survivors: "It's my lifeline to the real world that I live in, which is different from the real world that you live in."
Over the years, her condition improved slowly. She went back to school to learn how to do simple arithmetic. She started doing aerobics again and lifting weights. She remarried. After the eight years that it took for her to pass the two-year course to become a certified paralegal, she received her certificate on May 5, 1993. Life was returning to normal.
Three weeks later, lightning struck again.
Cooper and her family were now living in a town house by the ocean in Hillsboro Beach, Florida. She was in the kitchen, talking on the telephone. The sky was clear. Suddenly there was a loud boom and the charge smacked her in the face. For the next few months she experienced nausea and felt as though she had the flu, but this time she didn't go to a hospital: "I knew that I was breathing. I knew that my heart hadn't stopped, and I knew that they wouldn't do anything for me."
Soon after, her husband, Gordon, received an offer to join a law firm in Spartanburg, his hometown. There, she took a part-time job as an executive assistant to the president of a local corporation.
On July 11, 1994, Cooper was home alone making Jell-O for dessert. It had been raining earlier but the storm had passed. Reaching to turn on the tap, Cooper heard "a loud POP—like a flashbulb in the old-time press cameras." Lightning had struck nearby, traveled through the plumbing lines, through the faucets, and up both her arms. "It felt like somebody took a match and lit my arms. I felt like I was on fire." She hurried to the freezer and leaned over it until her body had cooled down.
From the Hardcover edition.