Monday morning a storm was brewing when I looked out the window and saw a roofer walking on Central Catholic's steep slate roof.  He and his crew had come to replace a few bad slates.

I have a healthy fear of heights and lightning so I was morbidly fascinated.  Would they be macho about the storm or would they leave?

Two of them were up there when a brief downpour swept by.  The roof became slippery.  They sat down.

The next time I looked the crew was off the main roof waiting on a lower level while the boss walked the ridgepole.  He examined the approaching black cloud with professional interest.  There was lightning in it.  He pointed out the cloud's leading edge to the crew as it slowly moved south.  Would he get off that roof?!?!

I know enough about lightning that I didn't want to see what might happen.  I stopped watching.

In most years lightning kills more people than tornadoes and hurricanes combined.  (This year's Joplin tornado turned that statistic on its head.)   Most people survive lightning strikes but have lifelong health problems afterward.  Most people are hit by lightning when it's not raining -- probably because they don't take shelter unless it rains.

I avoid lightning and have learned that...

  • The safest place to be is in an enclosed building that has plumbing or wiring (or lightning rods!) or in a car with a metal roof (not a convertible).
  • Lightning hits tall objects (don't stand under something tall; don't be tall yourself) and it travels through the ground (don't lie flat; don't stand near metal fences).
  • If I'm stuck outdoors hiking far from shelter I try to crouch in this position to protect myself. I've only done it once.  It's so hard to do that it took my mind off of being scared.

A friend once told me a harrowing story of being in a rustic cabin in Canada during a nighttime thunderstorm.  Lightning repeatedly hit the ground and came up through the floor.  It made the bedsprings glow.  Yikes!

My worst scare was the time I parked at the top of Laurel Mountain and hiked down the Tebolt Trail at Quebec Run Wild Area.  Thunderstorms were predicted to arrive at 2:00pm but I lost track of time.  At 1:00pm I heard thunder and knew it would take at least an hour to walk back up the mountain no matter how fast I went.  I started to walk and run uphill.  By the time I reached the top of the mountain the storm was quite close and I was praying and bargaining, "Not now! Please wait!"  I made it to the car, slammed the door and "BOOM!"  The lightning didn't hit me but my heart sure beat fast!

I could never be a roofer.

And, yes, the roofers left before the storm.

p.s. Do you have any close calls with lightning?  As I said, I'm morbidly fascinated.

(photo by "jcpjr" from

13 thoughts on “Lightning

  1. Wow. All the lovely things we see in nature; it has its down side too. Glad you know how to be safe. Lightening scares me too. As a child I used to hide under the bed with our dog. She was more scared than me I think. Interesting story this day. Thanks Kate.

  2. Hi Kate, just saw your story and then came across this video of a guy getting hit by lightening and then getting hit again. I will try to have hubby send you video. Poor guy, but he gets up and keeps going. Have no idea about injuries!!! Our house was hit by lightening once. As I sat on couch with a cat on my lap there was a HUGE flashlightcrash and in the light I saw my cat about two feet off my lap and then she was gone! Don’t know how they manouver without touching ground or me. Lost a few electronics but otherwise OK!

  3. When I was about 10 years old, lightning hit the chimney of my childhood home. The chimney was smashed to pieces, but otherwise, the house was undamaged. Since then, I have always needed to”keep an eye” on lightning storms. I am especially careful, not sleeping near windows, washing dishes, bathing, etc. when it’s storming.

    Many years later, while visiting my son at Boy Scout camp, there was a bad storm, and the only shelter were the tents pitched near the woods. Very scary!

  4. I biked the Katy Trail in Missouri this May. I left for my trip after the first tornado had hit the airport in St. Louis (good thing I was travelling Amtrak). So before I left I researched basic safety strategy concerning tornadoes. As I was researching I discovered that lightning was a much more common killer in general no matter where you are. Needless to say, I biked like the devil when the sky began to severely darken behind me one day, not wanting to encounter either force of nature up close and personal. I happened to know there was some shelter ahead.

    I had great weather overall. The Joplin tornado hit about a week later. A tornado also hit the town of Sedalia (where I had stayed) 2 weeks later and floods have plagued much of the area the trail traverses this June and July.

  5. My grandfather was standing behind a man hit by lightning. It ripped open the man’s shirt and chest and cooked him like a piece of meat. Grandpa had lots of scary tales.

  6. Kate, thanks for the links to important information that we all should have and should pass on to our family and friends!

    Just a week ago today, on a Friday night, Ken and I were in our car in a parking lot restaurant, waiting for the thunder, lightning, and downpour to stop before going inside. Across the street was a row of 3 transformers. Suddenly there was a vertical shaft of painfully white light, a simultaneous flash-boom, and all 3 transformers were engulfed in sparks and thick smoke. When the smoke cleared, we could see that the top had been blown off one of them. We were both shaken and tried to decide what to do – was it safer to stay in the car or should we make a run for it into the restaurant? We chose the latter, but I’m wondering now if that was the best choice.

  7. Among my many qualifications and occupations, I have been an electrician and done electrical work for ~35 years. About 15 years ago, I worked on a house in the North Hills which had been struck by lightning. The lightning had punched a hole in the roof and blown a ceramic lampholder on a nail-up junction box right off the rafter. It had also done a lot of other damage throughout the house, including going all the way down and blowing out the photocell on the lamppost along the sidewalk from the driveway to the front door.

    Last Friday afternoon (July 22 ’11) my apartment building was hit by lightning during a late afternoon storm that also knocked out power on the entire Tarentum/Brackenridge flats. One elevator was disabled (since repaired), and the floor-indicator LED panels above the elevator doors on the first floor have still not been fixed. I was talking to one of the elevator mechanics earlier this week and told him about having worked on a house struck by lightning. He told me a better story. He said that he had been working on a newly erected pole building and a storm was coming and he was trying to fix the weatherproofing on a (I think) garage type door. Well, he finally decided he was taking too big a chance, and just when he closed the door, lightning struck; he said it went through him but I guess not a full path through the body, because he seemed like there were no real aftereffects (I’m not sure when this happened). I didn’t press for details, but he did say that the lightning made the whole building “ring” for about 10 seconds.

    And I have one more related story, not lightning, but high-voltage electrical supply.

    A guy I knew who lived in the same building when I was an undergraduate at Pitt in the early 70s was an EE major. And despite not being at all your typical idea of an engineering major (I’ll leave that to your imagination), he did graduate and went to work at a fertilizer plant in Florida. I saw him about a year later and he told me this story. At the plant where he worked they had a high-voltage supply feed and (I’m assuming) many different step-down transformers of various sizes. One day they needed to do some maintenance on a circuit-breaker vault which are the size of a wall in a small office and which require a fork lift to manipulate. Well, one maintenance guy hollered at another and said “Did you tell Joe to pull the breaker up ahead? And the guy said yeah. Well. . . it turned out Joe hadn’t done it yet because when the first guy walked into the breaker vault he immediately came FLYING back out and went 10′ and slammed up against a wall. One whole forearm was burned where the 5Kv had arced to him. Bad enough. . . but the punchline is the crazy guy got up and worked the rest of his shift!

    I have many more, but I think that’s enough for now.


    PS: always watch out for the 277v stinger leg on a 480v Delta 3-phase!

  8. This did not happen to me but was told to me by a co-worker. When he was about 8 years old his family was leaving a restaurant just as a thunderstorm started overhead. It was raining so he decided to run to the car. He said as he was running he heard this strange sizzling noise, turned to look skyward and saw a brilliant white round disc speeding down toward him. He kept running and a bolt of lightning grounded about 10 ft away from him. He reports that the fine hairs on his arms and legs were burnt crisp but he was not hurt.

  9. And right on cue, another thunderstorm is brewing here. I hope it’s over before I have to stand out there and wait for the bus!!

  10. My room at my moms old house was in the attic and had 3 metal casement windows in the front, a large one in the middle flanked by 2 smaller ones. Well, the crank on the middle one had broken so in order to close it properly I had to remove the screen from one of the side windows and reach out and push it from the outside. One day it started storming and rain was coming in the window and I guess lightning had struck near the house and the window was carrying a charge because as soon as I reached out and touched the window to push it closed, my entire arm jerked at the shoulder and my forearm felt funny for a couple minutes.

    Also lost a modem during a thunderstorm once.

  11. When I was young, my family frequented a campground in northern PA, & parked a travel trailer & tent there permanently. One weekend, we arrived at the site following severe thunderstorms. There were branches all over the place. As I loaded my “gear” into the tent that my sister & I slept in, My eyes were drawn to one side. There was a hole burned into the tent where a leg of a cot touched the side of the tent – lightning had hit “my” cot. Thank goodness I was not in it at the time….

  12. Just this past month when my family and I were hiking on the north rim of the grand canyon we got stuck in a thunderstorm about four miles out from our car. We couldn’t have gotten more wet if we’d jumped in a swimming pool, but the lightning didn’t get any closer than a quarter of a mile, so we were pretty much ok. It’s kind of scary the kinds of things God will do to get you to pray!

  13. Kate, As if on cue, the NY/CT/NJ tri-state area had the wickedest lightning storm pass through Friday evening. I suppose it was the same system you detected in Pittsburgh 7/29 afternoon. It was long and furious. Crazy bolts and claps, seemingly endless, loud, bright and scary.
    A definite screamer……….

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