Averting Nature's Wrath

What Happens When Lightning Strikes?

When you think of natural disasters, usually floods and earthquakes come to mind. But what about lightning? More Americans are killed by lightning every year than by any other natural event. That's not surprising when you consider that lightning is five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Correspondent Russ Mitchell reports for 48 Hours Adventures.

What happened to Gretel Erlich was literally a bolt out of the blue. Three years ago she suffered a direct hit by lightning at her cattle ranch.

"I called the dogs to me," Erlich says, and I was petting them, and I said, 'Don't worry. You're all right, as long as you're with me.' And bang, we got hit."

The next thing Erlich remembers is waking up in a pool of blood. "I was bleeding from my head. I was paralyzed. My heart was beating erratically. I was in terrible pain," she says. "I had no idea what had happened to me. My first thought was that I had been shot in the back, because I was paralyzed."

And as I lay there, thinking I was gonna die, the thunderstorm kind of circled around and then really came on strong," she continues. "I saw lightning all around me. And then I realized what had happened."

"I tried to kind of, you know, clear my head, and die properly, whatever that is," Erlich says. "I didn't die. And then I got sort of mad. I thought, Oh no, now I have to go get help. Which seemed like a lot more work than dying."

Many of those who take a direct hit do indeed die.

"Lightning is the brightest, the hottest and the loudest natural sound on earth," says University of Florida Professor Martin Uman. "A thunderstorm typically has a large amount of negative charge." Lightning is basically a large spark of electricity, generated in a thundercloud, that travels to earth in a clench, he says. The strike "zigzags" down, until it meets with a returning electrical charge, which is what we see. The bolt itself is actually never witnessed.

"So you don't see the leader coming down. You see the return stroke, which is running back up, and it's very bright," says Uman. "The peak temperatures in the lightning return strokes are something like 50,000 or 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of the sun is around 12,000 degrees."

Typically there can be several strikes of lightning per second in the United States every afternoon, Uman says. Scientists have marveled at that spectacle for centuries, most notably when Ben Franklin set up his kite and discovered that lightning is composed of electricity.

More than 200 years later, scientists are still intrigued by lightning. But they're not flying kites anymore. Instead, they're traveling to a field in Florida to launch rockets. There they can not only study lightning but learn how to protect people from it.

When Lightning Strikes
  • Don't stand under a tree outside.
  • Inside? Avoid standing near doors or windows.
  • Stay off the phone.

  • "Lightning may come down the chimney," says Andy Plummer of Lightning Technologies in Pittsfield, Mass. "I've seen the whole fireplace blow out in the middle of the room," he says. "It can get into the electrical wiring and blow the TV tube out, into your lap."

    Plummer runs simulations to find out what happens when lightning hits a plane. Then he makes sure the airplane's skin can withstand a strike.

    Nature withholds its wrath from those traveling by car - if it's metal that is. Mike Alexander of the Boston Museum of Science uses a metal bird cage to illustrate that point. "As long as the electricity stays on the outside of a metal thing, you don't have anything to worry about," he says. "That's the thing protecting you - not the rubber tires, but the metal surrounding you."

    But when lightning strikes a human body, the consequences are often deadly.

    "A huge voltage of electricity traverses really pretty much the whole body," says Alexander. "It goes wherever - up the arteries, to the brain, down the spinal chord, affects the skin."

    While Gretel Erlich's injuries could not be seen (they were all internal), lightning temporarily stopped her heart and fried her nervous system.

    "Almost every time I stood up, I passed out," Erlich recalls. "When you have a brain stem injury, which I had, it just takes a long, long time for those cells to grow."

    It took Erlich three years to reach what she calls 95 percent recovery. She has since moved to California and written a book called A Match to the Heart, covering not just the physical effects but the emotional side as well.

    "[That] something that fills up the entire sky could single out a person - just seems impossible," Erlich says. "It draws you in by the beauty and repels you by the danger, ... catches you in a very strange push-pull. Right in that gap, I think, is an intensely spiritual experience."

    The experience changed her life.

    "I had a cattle ranch and a marriage, and a very, very busy life physically, as well as being a full-time writer," Erlich says. "Now I just write books and walk on the beach. So I live a very quiet life. I think you develop this enormous appetite for life when you put yourself face to face with death."

    "But instead of going ... at things voraciously, I just appreciate them," she says. "So it's a calmer way of loving the world."

    This month Erlich marks her third anniversary of being struck by lightning. Her plans? She intends to toast the sky with a bottle of champagne.

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