Lightning fatality puts focus on safety

Weather experts advise knowing the forecast, seeking shelter early

June 20, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Every summer here is miserably tropical as temperatures rise and humidity soars. But as demonstrated over the weekend in Annapolis, the resulting sudden, violent storms can be dangerous, public safety officials warned in annual first-day-of-summer advisories.

The importance of taking summer storms seriously - whether on land or water - was stressed by officials, especially in Anne Arundel County, where lightning struck a tree in an Annapolis field during a rugby tournament, leaving a Virginia man dead and nine others injured.

"As soon as you see the first black cloud roll in, head for shore," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Randy Merrick, who supervises the operations center. "You should get off the water immediately. There's no reason for a recreational boater to be out there."

Anne Arundel County Fire Battalion Chief John M. Scholz modified his advice only slightly for everyone on land. "Get indoors as soon as you can," he said.

Although the chance of being struck by lightning is 1 in 600,000 annually in this country, it happened Saturday.

A bolt struck a tree at Annapolis Middle School, where a group of rugby players and fans had sought shelter from rain and hail.

One man, Donald Patton, 58, of Centreville, Va., suffered cardiac arrest after he was struck by the lightning and was later pronounced dead at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

His son, Robert Patton, 26, remained at Maryland Shock Trauma Center yesterday in stable condition, according to a nursing supervisor. Brian Bohannon, 24, of Norfolk, was released from Shock Trauma yesterday.

The six others injured were released from area hospitals over the weekend.

"The risks are greater than they appear," said Ron Holle, a meteorologist who was the National Weather Service's resident lightning expert until he retired this year.

But, he added, about 80 percent of incidences of people being struck by lightning probably could be prevented by being careful.

David Imy, a meteorologist at the National Storm Prediction Center said, "If you can hear the thunder, don't wait for the lightning to get overhead. Then it will be too late."

He said houses with electrical wiring and plumbing are safest, though people should stay out of the bathroom and off the phone. Cars with metal roofs are second best. If nothing else is available, Imy said, people should make their bodies as low as possible without lying on the ground.

He added that it's most important to pay close attention to weather advisories. A "watch" means that the conditions are favorable for severe weather, so you don't necessarily have to cancel the game or stay home from the pool - but should be prepared to run to a house or car quickly.

A "warning" means severe weather has actually been reported in the immediate area and everyone is advised to get to the safest place possible quickly.

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