Storms blaze a deadly path through Md.

Lightning strikes kill Frederick man, burn Howard County home

August 04, 2002|By Tanika White and Kate Shatzkin | Tanika White and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Lightning strikes left a Frederick man dead and a Howard County family without a home yesterday, as violent thunderstorms tore through the area during much of the sweltering afternoon.

Michael Paul Palmer, 55, was killed by a bolt of lightning while standing on his deck in the 1800 block of Millstream Drive, Frederick police said. Palmer's 18-year-old son called for an ambulance about 2 p.m., but Palmer could not be revived and was later pronounced dead at Frederick Memorial Hospital.

About an hour later in western Howard County, a Clarksville family watched their home burn after lightning apparently struck the chimney, and neighbors could not get through to 911 for several crucial minutes. A Howard County dispatcher said early this morning that the supervisor of the 911 system would not be available to comment until tomorrow.

"It's a total loss," said Xaver Gramkow, 38, who lived in the house on Talon Court with his wife and three sons, ages 6, 8 and 14. "I'm in shock right now. I think I'll feel awful tomorrow."

Gramkow was napping upstairs when neighbors woke him to tell him his roof was ablaze. He said multiple calls to 911 were met with a busy signal. And a desperate attempt to use a garden hose was unsuccessful.

"It was too late. There was nothing we could do," he said. "The good thing is we're all safe."

Violent thunderstorms also left thousands of area residents without power yesterday - and one of the three grand masts of the historic Constellation in splinters.

The first storm downed trees and power lines early yesterday and showered the area with lightning starting about 2 a.m. Hail, wind and rain caused more damage in the afternoon.

By 12:30 a.m., about 32,000 people were still without power, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said. Most of those - about 20,000 - were in Baltimore and Howard counties, with an estimated 6,000 in the city, 4,000 in Anne Arundel and 2,000 in Carroll.

BGE began distributing dry ice at two sites last night: Mondawmin Mall and a Loyola College-owned facility at Timonium Road and Interstate 83. A spokeswoman said BGE would continue to distribute dry ice beginning at 7 a.m. today.

The hot, dry weather didn't make the storms' wake any easier to bear. On a day with temperatures in the mid-90s and a heat index of 105, many homes and some businesses had no air conditioning.

"I'm sitting on a porch, trying to get a little air," Jean Bell, manager of the Bel-Loc Diner, said yesterday afternoon. Normally open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays, the diner at Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road in Towson had to close when the early-morning storm knocked out power.

"There's no street lights or anything out here," Bell said. "There's no way to keep cool." Power was restored at the diner by about 5:20 p.m. yesterday.

Kathleen Nolan, a BGE spokeswoman, said crews were working around the clock to restore power to the area and had called in help from as far as South Carolina. Just as electricity was restored to some customers yesterday, another storm would cause new outages. "You get up, and it kind of socks you down," she said.

The utility urged people without electricity to go elsewhere to cool off. "We really don't want people to stay in a hot house assuming the power is going to come back on any minute," Nolan said.

Today and tomorrow aren't expected to offer much relief, with highs in the 90s and a chance of thunderstorms.

"It's just so hot and humid, this stuff will just develop in the hot and humid air," said Dewey Walston, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. "It's not a line of storms."

Trees and electrical wires were reported down throughout the area. Many traffic lights weren't working, causing minor accidents and delays, police said.

At the Constellation, workers arrived yesterday to find the top section of the mast closest to the ship's fore looking like an exploded cigar, with large pieces of its wood littered around the deck by a lightning strike.

"Normally, with all the other tall buildings around here, you wouldn't think we would be a target," said Christopher S. Rowsom, executive director of the Constellation Museum. "But it singled us out last night."

Workers hoisted themselves into the ship's rigging for several hours yesterday, unstringing half of about 300 lights that had been damaged by the strike. They prepared to remove the splintered mast using ropes and pulleys, but heat and the threat of afternoon rain slowed the job.

The Constellation, the last all-sail warship constructed by the Navy, returned to the Inner Harbor in 1999 after a $9 million, three-year restoration.

The damaged section of mast, carved from Douglas fir, was not original to the ship, which dates to 1854. For that, Patrick Flynn, a sergeant on the Constellation, was thankful. Still, he admitted to crying at the sight.

"It looked a bit like a battle here," he said.

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