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1 Dead, 1 Critical Following Lightning Strike In Poughkeepsie Park

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- One person has died and one person remains in critical condition after being struck by lightning in Poughkeepsie Friday afternoon, according to police.

Five people were struck in total.

Around 4 p.m., a large storm cell moved through the area and lightning struck in Mansion Square Park, bounded by Hamilton, Clinton, and Mansion streets in Poughkeepsie.

They were sitting on a bench under the tree when the severe weather struck, according to the Poughkeepsie Mayor's office.

As CBS2's Ali Bauman reported, rain was fairly light in the park Friday afternoon. No one was expecting the sudden thunder and lightning.

"They were blue -- like the sky, blue – you know, it was crazy," said witness Sam Hail.

First responders found the five people unresponsive on the bench and under the tree.

"There was actually smoke coming off one the guys, actually, you know, one of the guys that was laid out," Hail said. "He was alive, though, but like you could see he was smoking. His pants; his clothes were smoking."

The most seriously injured people were taken to Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie. The other two were taken to MidHudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie.

At least 30 firefighters and paramedics responded to give CPR.

"It was intimidating, because there were still flashes of lightning and thunder booms going," said firefighter Nick Bucher.

Speaking to CBS2's Maurice DuBois and Jessica Moore by phone late Friday afternoon, Poughkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison said he was leaving City Hall when he happened upon the scene.

Rolison said it appeared that the victims included four men and one woman. They were between the ages of 44 and 56.

Franklin Mekeel
Franklin Mekeel, 36, was one of five people injured in a lightning strike in Poughkeepsie on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. (via CBS2)

One of the injured victims was identified as Franklyn Mekeel, 46.

Mekeel's sister, Patty White, told CBS2 her brother's heart stopped beating for 30 minutes after he was struck by lightning. She had been walking by the park just after he was rushed to the hospital.

"I saw his book bag on the officer's car, so I asked to look in it, and sure enough, it was my brother's book bag," White said.

The others who were injured remained unidentified late Friday, but those in the area said they often spent the days outside at the park and slept in a shelter nearby.

Rolison reminded the public that sitting under trees during a storm with lightning can be dangerous. But he said the people who were struck may have had little time to react as they sat in the large park.

"There are park benches underneath these really big maple trees and other types of trees, and this was really a lightning generating type storm. We didn't have a lot of rain. There was a lot of lightning that moved through the area extremely quickly, not giving you a lot of time to move to a safer place," Rolison said.

Rolison said the lightning likely struck the side of a tree directly.

"It was really almost a direct strike without hitting anything to kind of slow it down or stop it, even though it doesn't, you know, it could have taken this whole tree down," Rolison said.

Rolison told CBS2's Bauman that on a hot day like Friday, he was not surprised that many people were in a park, even in a storm.

"It's a very busy park in that it offers a lot of shade, especially in the summertime, and people do sit underneath the trees," he said.

CBS2's Lonnie Quinn emphasized that anyone outside in a thunderstorm should find the lowest place, and should never be under a tree.

"You want to find the lowest spot you can in an open field and lie down," he said. "Get rained on all you want, but that's where you want to go. That's where you're the safest.

Rolison said he had never seen an accident like this one.

"It's just a reminder of the power of these storms, and you have to be cautious and diligent and really be aware of your surroundings," he said.

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