Jon de Vos: Unsafe at any denomination
May 17, 2012
So you think you’re unlucky?
Roy Sullivan was a Shenandoah National Park ranger for 35 years and an unlucky man until the day he died in 1983. Roy’s story will make you forget about never winning the lottery.
During his professional career, Roy had to fight off angry bears 23 times, a once-in-a-lifetime event for his counterpart rangers. Maybe still you could call it an occupational hazard but on June 25, 1977, Roy had to fend off a final career-ending bear while still staggering from his seventh career-ending lightning strike. Seven verified lightning strikes and memories of an eighth as a child, Roy claimed several times that clouds were “following him.” After retirement, he lived alone until he took his own life at age 72 when his girlfriend rejected him.
Odds, according to the National Weather Service, of being struck by lightning during your lifetime are roughly one in 10,000. Opinions seem to differ how to calculate being struck seven times during your life but most agree it’s doggone rare. In round numbers, 400-500 people in the U.S. are struck by lightning annually; 10 percent of them die.
3D lightning imaging is a fairly new technology but so far the longest bolt on record is 118 miles long. Travelling at 140,000 miles per hour, it took under 3 seconds to get there. The good news is that 80 percent of all the lightning strikes stay in the clouds, never hitting the ground at all.
Back in early Greece, the Cyclops were three mythical brothers, one-eyed giants who forged lightning bolts deep in the bowels of a fiery volcano. They pounded them into shape with thunderous hammer blows for the Greek God Zeus, who tossed them at the neighbors in a silly squabble over Helen of Troy, the beauty behind the face that launched the Trojan War. Despite the divine help, Troy got sacked and pillaged anyway.
For centuries, religious folks fretted over the fact that lightning was hitting a lot of churches. The clergy decided that vigorously ringing the church bells during storms would fracture the clouds and protect the church from damage. Many bells cast during Medieval times carried the Latin inscription, “Fulgura Frango” or, “I break the lightning.”
Curiously it didn’t work. European records indicate 133 bell-ringers were killed by lightning in the early 1400s. But faith, being what it is, led people to believe for another 300 years that God looked out for churches, therefore they were safe places to store arms and explosives. In 1769, the church of Saint Nazaire in Brescia, Italy, was used to store 100 tons of gunpowder. The lightning-caused explosion leveled a major portion of the city and killed 3,000 sleeping residents.
Benjamin Franklin was the first to figure out that God didn’t hate churches. It was simply that steeples were the tallest structure in the village, a natural attractant to lightning. His invention of the lightning rod created a safe pathway for the electricity to reach the ground. Churches could now burn with fervor, not fire.
Colorado’s not a great place to live if you worry about lightning. It’s fourth in the nation in lightning strike fatalities, primarily due to the high levels of the state’s outdoor enthusiasts. It’s no surprise that Florida leads the nation; one good lightning strike at the tip would short-circuit half the pacemakers in Miami.
The last week in June is Colorado Lightning Safety and Wildfire Awareness Week where, among other things, you can learn when it’s time to come in out of the rain.
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