St. Petersburg Times

Lightning injures four on Clearwater Beach
Two of the people were critically hurt and were taken to Morton Plant Hospital.
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published July 24, 2005

CLEARWATER BEACH - Michael Pitcher saw the storm rolling onto Clearwater Beach Saturday evening. Heavy rain fell. Lightning quivered from the clouds.

Pitcher and his girlfriend sought safety under a pier. They looked into the water and saw about 20 swimmers.

"All those people out in the water, somebody's going to get struck by lightning," Pitcher said. The words had barely left his mouth when there was an incredible crack.

A lightning bolt had struck the beach, knocking three people unconscious. A fourth person, a pregnant woman, also was hit by lightning but remained conscious, emergency officials said.

Two of the people suffered critical injuries and were taken to Morton Plant Hospital. Two others with serious injuries were taken to Bayfront Medical Center and Largo Medical Center.

Their names and conditions were not available Saturday night. All appeared young, perhaps in their early 20s. It was unclear if the victims were at the beach together, witnesses said.

Pitcher, 46, and girlfriend Susan Berg, 35, said it appeared the male, standing in water that was not even waist high, took a direct hit. He looked to be coming toward shore when the bolt struck his head, Pitcher said.

The bolt flickered for about three seconds. Then, the man's arms went up in the air and the electricity appeared to lift him out of the water, Pitcher said. When the bolt disappeared, he dropped back in the water and sank, Pitcher said.

"It sucked him right out of the water," said Pitcher, a hospice nurse from Port Richey. "The lightning stopped, and it dropped him. I couldn't believe it. It was scary."

Several people jumped in the water and pulled him out. Several others called 911 on their cell phones.

Bob and Helen Wierenga were about 25 yards away, under an umbrella, when they heard what sounded like an explosion. They ran down the beach and saw the man and two women unconscious. Bystanders were performing CPR on all three people, who lay about 5 to 10 yards apart.

"To see them actually lifeless and breathless on the beach was terrifying," said Helen Wierenga, a 46-year-old teacher. "It was awful."

The Wierengas said lightning continued to flash above the bystanders as they performed CPR.

A firetruck had been on the beach's roundabout when the bolt hit. Firefighters steered toward the beach, then were flagged down. They ran to the beach and summoned vital signs from all three unconscious victims, said Joel Gray, assistant chief for Clearwater Fire Rescue.

Bob Wierenga, a local pastor, said police and fire officials tried to clear all the bystanders off the beach, but they refused to leave until the victims were carted off. He said one firefighter hoisted a female victim on his shoulders and ran her off the beach.

"The people on the beach really rallied around them," Bob Wierenga said.

The male victim was the last to be taken off, the Wierengas said, and he didn't look in good shape. He was foaming at the mouth and appeared to be turning blue, they said.

"They did everything they could to keep him alive," Bob Wierenga said. "Our prayers are with him."

The incident shows the danger of fast-moving afternoon storms in summertime Florida, which has more lightning strikes per year than anywhere in the nation.

Gray, the assistant fire chief, said a lightning strike packs up to 1 billion volts of electricity. A bolt also can strike from up to 10 miles away. The average strike comes from 6 miles away and carries about 50,000 degrees of heat, which is four times as much as the sun's surface.

Pitcher and Berg said they have counseled their children to head indoors when storms appear in the distance. Berg said her children, ages 8 and 12, always want to play in rainstorms and get angry with her when she won't allow it.

Berg said she wished the bathers hit by lightning Saturday would have heeded that lesson.

"You would think they'd know enough to get out of the water," said Berg, an office manager who visits the beach every other weekend. "Anyone who lives in Florida and goes to the beach knows better."

Instead, swimmers were back in the water, with lightning still a danger, as emergency crews assisted the injured, Pitcher said.