For the past 40 years, according to the National Weather Service, lightning has been the second largest storm killer in the U.S. Nearly 70 people are killed each year by lightning, and those who survive bear symptoms that can last for years. Russ Francis is one who survived, and he talks with host Steve Curwood about the storm that changed his life.
CURWOOD: 'Tis the season of summer storms, and while some folks relish all that excitement of crashing thunder and pouring rain, others say their blood runs cold at the first flash of light, especially those who've been hit by lightning. Between 200 and 1,000 people in the U.S. are struck by lightning each year. About 70 of them are killed.
Now, one person who lived to tell his tale is Russ Francis, a communications worker in Lyndon, Illinois. We caught him on his cell phone as he was driving home from work. Russ, I hear it's optimal conditions for a conversation like this!
FRANCIS: Yeah, at the present time, I’m just ahead of a huge thunderstorm. I get kind of antsy I guess when it’s storming like this.
CURWOOD: I hope this won’t spook you too much, but could you tell me the story of when you did get struck by lightning?
FRANCIS: Yes, at the time I worked for a communication company and I was repairing a line and it was raining out that day and it had not been storming at all. And I just had finished up the case of trouble that I was working on and shut the closure up and I was on the ground and just had stood up and I remember seeing the flash. It came out my right hand and the noise was something, I can’t even explain how loud the noise was. It’s the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced or heard or whatever. And I remember getting half thrown back and the next thing I remember was trying to get back into my truck and, at the time, it blew out the two-way radios that I had in our truck. I had no feeling at all on my right side. It just felt like I’d had a stroke.
CURWOOD: Wow. So, this thing hits you, you see this flash come out of your hand and then, did it knock you out? Did you have to wake up?
FRANCIS: I don’t think I was ever completely knocked out. I know I was stupor- stunned and sat there, and then got in my van and I had a headset there where I could have went back and connected on and tried to call for help. (Laughs) I’m not getting back out in this. So I ended up driving myself back into the office which was about two and a half miles away. I remember my boss took me into the emergency room then.
CURWOOD: Now, you had some symptoms, like your whole right side was weak and you lost your hearing. How long do those symptoms last?
FRANCIS: Well, I was off work for about three and a half years. Probably the first two years I slept between 20 and 22 hours a day. It just zapped every bit of energy there was out of me. I still have terrible headaches. I had a lot of trouble with dizziness and at the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital they did a functional MRI and they found out that one side of my brain pretty had much got sizzled by it.
CURWOOD: So, literally fried the brain, huh?
CURWOOD: But you’re doing okay, you sound okay.
FRANCIS: I’m back to work. They told me I’d never be go to work. I’m back to work. And the other side, I guess, is taking care of the side that’s been damaged so we’re living life as well as we can.
CURWOOD: Now, what kind of reaction did you get from family and friends? I understand that a lot of times people have a hard time believing people who say they’ve been hit by lightning.
FRANCIS: Well, the biggest things is, that 95 percent of the people have no burns or no marks on them and I was one of those. You have no physical things and they look at you and say, "you look okay, you look healthy." And, at the time, I couldn’t walk across the room without being exhausted. It would get kind of aggravating that way when people look at you in that regard. I mean, you don’t have an arm blown off, you’re not sizzled like an overdone hotdog so they think you should be okay. Well, you’re not.
CURWOOD: Now, do you have any advice for me? It’s the summer season, and it seems to me that the thunder and lightning storms come this time of year. The hazy, hot and humid weather. What would you advise me to do?
FRANCIS: I guess one of the things that bothers me is if I see a coach trying to get that one more inning in or one more batter up, or something like that, or one more play-off or get one more hole in. It can change your life and it’s not worth it.
CURWOOD: And so, what if I’m all of the sudden caught out in the middle of it and it seems like, oh wow, this is definitely lightning time. Anything I can do?
FRANCIS: Get yourself in an enclosed structure like a building with sides on it and preferably something that’s got wiring in it or whatever, like a park shelter or a tent is not a good place to be. Under a tree is one of the terrible places to be. A car is okay. It’s not the best place to be, but it’s better than being out in the open.
CURWOOD: So, right now are you still outrunning the storm?
FRANCIS: No I pulled over right now so we could have a decent cell phone conversation, but it the storm is catching up to me.
CURWOOD: Well, I guess you better get a move on then.
FRANCIS: Tell your people though, if you hear it, fear it. If you see it, flee it.
CURWOOD: Good advice. Russell Francis works in the communications business in Lyndon, Illinois.
[MUSIC: Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Sibelius) "The Storm" from ‘Sibelius: Symphony No.2/The Tempest’ (AC Classics – 2000)]
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