Column – Close encounter with lightning isn’t quickly forgotten
Published 3:57 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2023
Recent rains have been welcome, and needed. The lightning that defines thunderstorms, though, can be dangerous and costly.
Lightning is unpredictable, unavoidable and doggone powerful. It’s also quick. A lightning bolt, I understand, lasts about 30 microseconds — 30 millionths of a second.
The point is simply that lightning is not to be toyed with. We all know, or should know, not to stand under tall trees or in open doorways, to stay off the telephone and out of the shower during an electric storm. And we need to pay attention to even the remote chance of lightning.
We had such an eye-opening experience about 25 years ago. There must have been lightning somewhere in the area, but we hadn’t seen it or heard its thunder when the big bolt struck. I was standing in my skivvies getting ready for bed when I saw a fireball blow out the side of our 19th century house and an explosion rocked the old dwelling.
I slipped on pants and shirt and rushed outside, thinking a tree in the back yard had been hit. About the time I got outside, the smoke alarm went off inside and Anne and I found the family room to find it full of smoke. The scent of ozone was incredibly strong.
We called the fire department from a cellphone (the household phone wiring had been fried, we subsequently learned), and Smithfield firefighters spent the next hour calming our fears by crawling under, over and through the house sniffing and looking for fire. Other than smoldering appliances — the source of the smoke — there was none.
(Incidentally, I spent 25 years in that fire department, both as firefighter and engineer, and it’s a whole lot different when you’re on the receiving end of its services. Those folks are great.)
We first thought the strike had come in through GTE’s (now Verizon’s) pedestal several hundred feet away. Days later, we discovered the true path of the strike by tracing dead streaks of grass from a tall oak tree.
Basically, it appeared that the lightning struck the oak, blew out in three directions along major roots (yes, the tree died) and tracked underground across the yard until it found water in the septic system’s distribution box. It blew the top off the box, traveled along the drain field and blew a crater in the front yard. Part of the charge traveled toward the house entered another drain line (this one carrying water away from the house’s downspouts). From there, it traveled to a corner of the house and exploded upward. It shot mud into the air and plastered it on a second story cornice, some 20 feet above.
At that point, part of the strike crossed to the telephone wiring, traveled 300 feet to the phone company’s pedestal and blew it across the highway. Part of the charge roared into the house where it fried phone lines and two telephones, then crossed to the household wiring and took out a microwave, dishwasher, pump house wiring, two television sets, two VCRs and a hot water heater.
Another part of the charge chose aluminum guttering for its path. Traveling around the house, it blew the corner elbows off the gutters, came down a downspout, found a nail it liked at the back of the house and entered the outside wall of the family room. With nowhere else to go, it blew a 2-foot hole in the drywall and knocked siding off the outside wall.
We were extraordinarily fortunate that night, now decades ago. Miraculously, neither of us was injured and the house didn’t catch fire. And the great lightning strike of 2000 is now a permanent part of family lore.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.