ST PETERSBURG TIMES--North Pinellas

Three resting under oak feel 'the jolt, the whoa, the zap'

The construction workers are in hospitals for monitoring after a bolt from the blue interrupts their lunch break in a field.
By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 29, 2003


CLEARWATER - Three construction workers narrowly missed being hit with a lightning strike seconds before a Monday afternoon thundershower.

Still, the aftershocks of electricity went through their bodies, and the men were taken to area hospitals for overnight heart monitoring.

The sky was a clear blue when the three men, all working on the U.S. 19 and Drew Street overpass, took a lunch break. At 12:07 p.m., they settled underneath a huge live oak growing in an empty field by the road.

"The lightning struck, traveled through the tree and into the ground where they were subjected to a significant amount of electrical energy," said Lt. Wendy Cason with Clearwater Fire Rescue. "No one got struck directly. They all described similar feelings of the jolt, the whoa, the zap."

Firefighters are not giving out the men's names because of new health and privacy laws. Two of the men were taken to Morton Plant Hospital. Another was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital.

Even though the incident occurred in Clearwater, the three men were indirectly working for the city of St. Petersburg. Their construction company, Gulf Coast, was moving a St. Petersburg water line out of the way.

Cayetone Rodriguez, another construction worker, said the jolt came out of nowhere.

"They sat by the tree, and the thunder started and then the lightning," said Rodriguez, who lives in Davenport when not working.

People living in the nearby Royal Breeze Apartments, 21227 U.S. 19 N, said they felt the charge.

"It was a big pop," said Gabriel Padilla, 34. "It was just like, "Boom!' The rain came afterward. I didn't see a flash, just (heard) a boom."

The apartment community is frequently struck by lightning. So much so that the apartment manager has requested lightning rods to be placed on her property.

The apartment community, which sits next door to the field of oaks, is on high ground, a grounds manager said.

"Usually, it's the transformer in back of my property that gets hit," said Virginia Wistner, community manager. "It was huge. The only thing I can compare it to is the Fourth of July. You could hear it echo."

One of the men who had been shocked got up and asked a fellow worker to call 911. When firefighters arrived, they pulled the men inside ambulances and looked them over.

"Surprisingly, there were no signs of any external burns," said Cason, with Clearwater Fire Rescue. "It's possible they had other internal injuries. The electricity could do damage along the way."

A direct lightning strike will cause death. But even with an indirect strike, the men would likely be kept overnight because there is a chance that their heartbeat could be altered by the electricity, Cason said.

In 2002, Florida recorded nine deaths caused by lightning, according to the National Weather Service. One of those deaths occurred under a tree, another was on a boat and the remainder were outside, in the open.

Experts say that under a tree is the worst place to stand when thunder and lightning are present.

The injured men were dropped off at the hospital, Cason said.

"All three of them were alert and oriented, but unsteady on their feet," she said.

- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com