Lightning Lessons in Poughkeepsie Deaths

The chances are remote, but results devastating

by Anita Peltonen

Your lifetime odds of being zapped by lightning are one in 3,000 — way better than your odds of winning the Lotto.

Most of the hits on humans happen on or near water, a caution for this river- and lake-rich region. Fifteen people were injured near Lake George the same week four other New Yorkers we’re fatally struck by lightning.

On Aug. 10, two adults died after a lightning strike at a Batavia cemetery. Two days later, five people were hit in Mansion Square Park in Poughkeepsie. Richard Harbstreet, 50, died that night and Franklyn Mekeel, 46, died of his injuries 12 days later.

A lightning strike on Aug. 13 on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie (Photo by Justin Farrisi / 4EC Photography)

A lightning strike on Aug. 13 on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie (Photo by Justin Farrisi / 4EC Photography)

The strike in Poughkeepsie was indirect, having traveled from a tree through the ground to two benches. (Direct and indirect hits kill Americans in equal numbers.) The thunderstorm apparently came on fast and highly charged; it’s unusual for lightning to affect so many people at the same time.

Making Lightning

Inside thunderclouds, small chunks of ice knocking into each other create friction, negatively charging the entire cloud. The ground’s positive charge, concentrated around anything that rises above it, draws down the negative charge from the cloud and connects — the lightning strike. Its intense heat, five times hotter than the sun, explodes outward — the thunder.

To err on the side of caution, get indoors when a storm is within 10 miles. “Lateral” lightning travels horizontally and reaches far ahead of thunderclouds. A “bolt from the blue” — clear-air lightning, with no visible cloud source — may travel as far as 30 miles ahead of the anvil cloud-on-top-of thunderstorm formation which causes it. It is 10 times more charged than most other forms of lightning.

“Any amount of voltage can seriously damage the body,” said John Nelson, a spokesperson for Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, where Harbstreet was pronounced dead.

These are the months to be vigilant, as there is still a lot of good weather to lure people outside and, as in the Poughkeepsie event, electrical storms can charge in quickly and with little warning. Hurricane season continues into December, and that means more lightning to dodge. Some scientists believe warming seas increase lightning frequency.

Tip 1: If you can’t get to indoor shelter, avoid trees or other objects and do not cluster in groups. Find open ground and crouch with hands on knees. Never lie down or put your head on the ground. If a car is your only option, avoid touching metal.

Heed nature’s warnings. The mistake most people make is moving to shelter far too slowly. Even though thunder growls like a hellhound and approaching lightning can make your hair stand on end (an indication of close proximity), some people stay to take a picture. The moment you hear a rumble (“brontide”) of thunder, you are close enough to be hit. Thunder is a sound caused by lightning.

A double lightning strike on Aug. 13 on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie (Photo by Justin Farrisi / 4EC Photography) 

A double lightning strike on Aug. 13 on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie (Photo by Justin Farrisi / 4EC Photography)

Don’t wait to see the flashes. Thunderstorms pummel the earth’s atmosphere thousands of times an hour, with landspeeds of 50 miles per hour or more. Lightning travels at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour and carries up to a billion volts. Males are at greater risk than females, in part because of their overrepresentation in trades like construction and outdoor maintenance. When indoors, stay away from windows and electric and electronic devices. Avoid using the phone or showering. In rare cases, lightning can enter a home’s electrical system and jump from one outlet to another.

What Happens on Planes?

Henry Keil, a retired military (U.S Navy) and commercial (Delta) pilot who lives in Philipstown, says that pilots are trained to avoid severe weather and lightning, and that prior to any flight, they receive a detailed briefing that contains “severity, density, moisture content, temperature strata, movement and turbulence levels associated with such a front or isolated storm.” Continuous updates are provided in flight, and pilots keep the aircraft at least 20 miles from any dangerous weather.

Nevertheless, “over the years, I have been on a few flights that were struck by lightning,” Keil says. It was loud and sudden, he said. The damage to the aircraft was usually limited to a discolored radome (the cone that protects the radar equipment) and a “new design” on the fuselage.

This is not an enemy you should try to beat. Because even if you survive, getting hit by lightning is extremely painful. Most fatalities are caused by an overload of voltage on the heart, bringing on cardiac arrest; on the brain stem, bringing on respiratory failure; or catastrophic damage to the central nervous system, according to Dr. Dennis Chute, the Dutchess County medical examiner, who investigated the two Poughkeepsie deaths.

Tip 2: Move away from bodies of water; lighting can bounce to shore. Water is a natural conductor of electricity, and most people killed by lightning are fishing, or near water. A conductor of electricity you might not suspect? A frozen lake.

From nightmarish burns to vision and hearing loss, lightning injuries can be gruesome. Eyewitnesses often see smoke coming off victims. The psychological scars are real, too, including memory loss and post traumatic stress.

This is not an enemy you want to try to beat.

Runner’s Remorse

Doctors at Vancouver General Hospital, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that a 37-year-old runner was thrown eight feet when lightning hit a nearby tree. The man’s burns started on his abdomen, separated at his sternum, went up both sides of his neck, blasted out his eardrums and broke his jaw in four places. “The combination of sweat and metal earphones directed the current to, and through, the patient’s head,” the doctors wrote. The burns seemed to trace the earbuds and wires attaching them to his MP3 player.

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