5 Horrifying Ways Lightning Strikes Are Worse Than You Think
We tend to use "getting struck by lightning" as our standard for unlikely shit happening to you. As in, "You're more likely to get struck by lightning than die in a terrorist attack" (which is true). But of course, that phrase ignores the fact that lots of people do in fact get struck by lightning.
We spoke to Bruce Weiner, who survived multiple attacks from Zeus 29 years ago, and he told us ...
Lightning isn't Random
You don't need extraordinary bad luck to get hit by lightning, or even to get hit by lightning multiple times, as Bruce Weiner did. There's an old adage that lightning never strikes the same place twice, and it's total bullshit. The Eiffel Tower and most skyscrapers get hit just about every time there's a thunderstorm, and farmers lose tons of livestock to lightning each year, which is why they have dubbed these strikes "the wolves of the sky" (or at least they should -- that would be badass).
Either that, or we should call wolves "lightning dogs."
Yosemite National Park has a sign posted on Half Dome, its most popular mountain, warning hikers that in inclement weather they should not hike past a certain point, lest they be struck by lightning. Bruce's story begins back in 1985, when he and a group of four other hikers decided to resolutely ignore that prudent sign and hike on up anyway.
This lovely natural lightning rod.
That part is the bald, top half-mile of the mountain, and it gets hit by lightning all the goddamned time. If you look closely, you'll notice that the people in the photo are climbing up a ladder made of steel cables, which in Yosemite (and much of the rest of the world) are known as lightning rods, and incoming rain will make things even worse. Yosemite reports Half Dome getting struck by lightning at least once a month, or "way too fucking often for you to camp up there."
About midway through Bruce's hike, the weather got shitty. One of the members of the group assured everyone that if things got bad, they could take shelter in a cave at the top of the mountain. Here's that cave:
Bruce Wayne's cave is a sanctuary; Bruce Weiner's is a deathtrap.
How much protection did that offer? Let's put it this way: Not everyone in the group survived what was about to happen.
The Sound is Like a Bomb Going Off
If you get caught in a situation like this, there are some generally agreed-upon methods of turning your body into a unit that would be "grounded" and wouldn't allow the electricity to flow through you. It happens to be identical to the healthiest way to poop, so at least you can take care of some business while you're waiting to die.
And for God's sake, hold that fart in.
Notice what the guy is doing with his hands? He's covering his ears, because on top of everything else, a lightning strike is so incredibly loud that it can ruin your hearing. That's right -- just the noise can hurt you.
When the lightning struck, Bruce had finished changing clothes after sitting on the edge of the cave, overlooking Yosemite. One guy was still sitting on the ledge, and another was right inside the cave, fiddling with his pack. And that's when the blast hit -- to Bruce, the first strike was less "zap of electricity" and more "did a fucking bomb go off?" His initial thought was not that they'd been struck by lightning, but that a propane stove they'd brought along had exploded next to him.
Safe to say that he needed to change clothes again.
"It's an explosion combined with a pressure wave," says Bruce. "It's not just audible and not just pressure -- it's a full wave of everything all at once. I didn't see any lightning flash, because we were in it. I didn't have the sensation of [anything] feeling like electricity. It felt like something gigantic just smooshed us."
Thunder happens when lightning heats the air, and we mean really heats it. The heat expands so fast that the resulting waves go boom, and holy shit is it loud. The National Lightning Safety Institute warns that the decibel levels of thunder in close proximity are about ten times worse than using a jackhammer without ear protection, and that even thunder itself can cause property damage from the shockwaves alone. Not that the ear-splitting noise was the worst of their problems, far from it. We're merely trying to convey the sheer, unfathomable power at work here. That will help you understand what happened next ...
It's Instant Paralysis (if You're Lucky)
In the confusion of the immediate aftermath, the first realization Bruce had was that he couldn't feel his legs. Brian Jordan, another man in the group, had died instantly, which is unfortunately one of the most common results of getting struck head-on by lightning. Another guy had also lost use of his legs, while yet another was knocked unconscious.
Bruce doesn't report seeing any comical skeletons, but it's possible.
The man who had been sitting on the ledge (Robert Frith) took the lightning right to his skull (or "right between the eyes", as the newspaper report at the time put it). He began having violent seizures. Bruce and the other guy who couldn't move his legs tried to crawl over to him (this was only about a 10-foot by 15-foot cave) and prevent him from falling over the edge and down a 2000-foot drop.
They didn't make it -- the seizures were so violent that he thrashed out of their grip and fell over the side. Just like that. Seconds earlier, these men had been sitting around, eating snacks and having idle conversation, admiring the view from the mountaintop. Then a sudden blast of noise and pressure, and now two people were dead, the rest incapacitated and shell-shocked.
And regular shocked too.
They sat there, trying to gather themselves, when lightning struck again ...
If You Get Hit Once, be Prepared to Get Hit Again
We're going to again bring up that adage about lightning never striking twice. Want to know how bad that bullshit really is? About 10 minutes after the initial strike, Bruce began regaining control of his legs when, wouldn't you know it, lightning struck the same place a second time.
This time, the shock flung Bruce across the cave like an electrocuted rag doll, where he landed on top of the guy who'd been knocked unconscious. At this point, Bruce says he had an out-of-body experience, feeling like he was floating above himself. And you have to admit, if anything was going to cause such a phenomenon, it would fucking be this.
But he somehow got back into his body and woke up with a searing pain in his chest. His shirt had been ripped open, and he had a burning sensation all across his torso. Landing on top of the unconscious guy managed to wake the poor man up. That left three stunned, wounded men who collectively didn't have any idea what was supposed to happen next.
"Do we fight Spider-Man now?"
Fortunately, there was another group of hikers nearby who heard one of Bruce's group screaming for help. But they were still at the top of a mountain, in a storm, which meant actual medical attention was still hours away ...
Rescue Is Far From the End of the Ordeal
Fast-forward to 9:30 pm -- the three badly injured survivors had spent several hours in the cave, and a search and rescue team was now yelling down to the ranger base below with bullhorns (the 1985 equivalent of a cell phone) trying to get some help up to the cave. Ultimately, the decision was made to get everyone down that night and to the hospital, rather than wait until morning, as if there were any reason at all to make lightning strike victims wait another 10 hours to get medical treatment.
Though if they were struck a third time, the treatment would be free.
But the weather had just started calming down, and no helicopter pilots wanted to make the trip up to the mountaintop at night. They finally found someone who agreed to make the flight up there -- a guy whose previous helicopter experience included flying missions in Vietnam. He picked up the hiking party and flew them off to safety. The first hospital nearby wasn't equipped to handle lightning strike victims (but who is, really?), so they were taken further out, to the hospital at the University of California, Davis.
Bruce spent three weeks or so at UC Davis, and then was shipped home to Boston, where he stayed in the hospital in a burn unit. You see, lightning does weird shit to the human body. When a powerful shock of electricity travels through certain materials (such as flesh), it tends to tear a lightning-shaped marking through its path and leave it there for good. It's called a Lichtenberg figure, and when one comes from a lightning strike, it can scar a person for life. The good news is, that scar looks a hell of a lot cooler than most people's tattoos (the following two photos are not of Bruce, as his wounds don't photograph particularly well, but they give you an idea):
That bedspread totally ripped off his design.
Seriously- you'd have to pay like, 800 bucks to get something like this inked onto your arm, and sit still for hours and hours' worth of sessions.
Instead of weeks and weeks of hospitalization.
Bruce was significantly worse off -- he had suffered major kidney damage and required a lot of skin grafts. Unfortunately for him, his grafts got infected and needed to be ripped off and replaced -- a process Bruce says was worse than actually getting hit. Here's what it looks like three freaking decades later:
This photo is of Bruce, whose right outer shin is apparently embedded with the egg of an alien queen.
Bruce lost over 70 pounds while he was bedridden. Unfortunately, most of that weight was muscle, which he had to gain all the way back so he could do fun things like "walk correctly" again. To this day, Bruce still has muscle loss from the experience. There is permanent nerve damage that he'll likely deal with for the rest of his life. He also has some lingering kidney problems -- 29 years later and that lightning strike won't even let him pee normally.
What we're trying to say is, if you're out and about and see a sign warning you of lightning ahead, turn back.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Bizarre Realities of Taking Unapproved Drugs for Money and 5 Terrifying Things Only Truckers Know About the Highway.
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