7 Disasters Caused by Lightning

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From gunpowder stockpiles to Star Wars memorabilia, it seems that nothing is safe from a lightning strike. Let's take a look back at some notable examples.

1. Lightning and Gunpowder Don't Mix

In August of 1769, lightning struck the tower of the Church of the Nazaire in Brescia, Italy. The current passed through the vaults where 207,000 pounds of gunpowder had been stored for safekeeping. You can tell where this is going. The aftermath destroyed a sixth of the city and killed 3,000 residents. The British parliament responded by passing two acts establishing standards for the manufacture and storage of gunpowder in private hands, eventually leading to an argument over how to best protect arsenal from lightning strikes.

2. Pan American Flight 214—December 8, 1963

The worst lightning strike death toll occurred when lightning hit a Pan American Boeing 707 en route from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, killing all 81 on board. It's the only US airliner lost to lightning. Lightning struck the left wing of the 707 and hit the fuel vapor mixture stored in a reserve fuel tank, igniting it. The airplane exploded midair and crashed near Elkton, Maryland.

Flight 214 was in a holding pattern, awaiting approval to land at Philadelphia International Airport when it was struck. On fire, a large portion of the left wing separated in flight. The pilot managed to maintain control for a few seconds before the plane crashed. While examining the wreckage, officials noticed numerous spots where the metal surface and rivet heads appeared melted. Also, an irregular-shaped hole surrounded by fused metal indicated the presence of high heat.

Lightning charges can be hazardous to airplane fuel systems because lightning is able to ignite the fuel vapor in the tanks. As a result of this tragedy, the FAA insisted that all commercial jet liners be fitted with lightning discharge wicks. Still, on average, every commercial airliner is struck in flight at least once per year.

3. New York City Blackout

time-blackout.jpgChaos hit New York City in the summer of 1977 when lightning struck the Consolidated Edison electrical transmission line in northern Westchester County. The strike occurred near the ConEd power plant and as a result, major transmission lines were short-circuited. After an investigation, officials determined that several "massive lightning bolts" had struck the 345,000-volt power lines numerous times. The power was out for 25 hours, trapping people in subways and elevators, with violent looting, rioting and arson peppering the city.

4. Lightning in Space (sort of)

The Atlas-Centaur 67 was a 137-foot, $78 million rocket carrying $83 million of military communication equipment. Spinning out of control 51 seconds after liftoff, the rocket had to be destroyed immediately to prevent any off-course veering that might have endangered populated areas along the Florida coast. The flaming wreckage fell into the Atlantic Ocean three miles from Cape Canaveral.

Afterwards, videotape released by NASA showed a lightning bolt clearly flashing out of the rain clouds into which the Atlas-Centaur had vanished. Safety officials determined that at 14,250 feet the rocket disappeared into the clouds, losing control and disrupting all communications. Lightning experts said that a rocket penetrating a storm cloud could attract electrical charges much like a tree or a tall building, such as the Empire State Building. NASA officials blamed the Air Force for shoddy weather reports, and defended their decision to launch a rocket into cloudy skies.

This was not the first time lightning and NASA butted heads. On November 14, 1969, the Apollo 12 was struck thirty seconds into liftoff. Systems failed temporarily, but the astronauts managed to regain control.

5. The Yellowstone Fires—Summer of 1988

A combination of drought, high winds, and multiple lightning strikes caused one of the largest fire seasons in Yellowstone history. Fires affected 36% of the park (approx. 793,800 acres)—nine fires because of human error, 42 by lightning. 300 mammals perished (mostly elk). Yellowstone residents, firefighters, and tourists remember the harrowing months of flames licking above the treetops, evacuations, closed roads, and hillsides glowing with embers. Dubbed "Black Saturday," August 20 marked the single most active fire day of the 1988 season. Several Rangers and visitors found themselves stranded at the visitor center, the exit paths blocked by downed trees and 100 foot tall windblown flames.

Even ten years later, hikers still had to take caution, especially on windy days, for falling dead trees burned in the 1988 fires. As of 2008, new trees are growing in thick and tall, covering the views opened up by the fires.

6. Lightning vs. The Force

In 2005, Graham Duck returned to his home in Loftus to find that his house had been struck by lightning during a storm that ravaged part of northern England. The lightning hit the chimney, traveled down a wall, and set fire to the loft. The lightning strike also destroyed his £20,000 collection of Star Wars toys and memorabilia, which he had stored in the loft, close to where the lightning hit the roof. Mr. Duck called the collection irreplaceable and priceless.

7. Lightning: Cure or Cause?

70% of people who get hit by lightning survive—including many golfers, whose constant presence in open spaces leaves them vulnerable. Victims often claim to have undergone physical changes, frustrating incredulous lawyers who think they want simply to win lawsuits or workers' compensation. Survivors claim that after being struck, they developed stutters, impotence, memory loss, depression, blurred vision, and poor hearing. Fair enough after having electricity surge through your body. Some bizarre survivor stories include:

Tony Cicori, a surgeon who suddenly became obsessed with classical piano after being struck by lightning.
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Roy Sullivan, a former park ranger, holds the Guinness Records not only for being struck the most—seven times—but surviving them all! He kind of debunks the whole "lightning never strikes the same place twice" thing. Sadly, Sullivan committed suicide when he was 71.
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Harold Deal said he stopped feeling cold after he was struck by lightning in 1969. He regularly wears shorts in snowstorms and has photos to prove it.
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Edwin Robinson claims a lightning bolt returned his eyesight, which he'd lost in a car accident 10 years earlier.

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December 22, 2008 - 7:08am
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