The Shocking Truths about Lightning Deaths
In the aftermath of a severe mid-summer thunderstorm, a rookie police officer is dispatched to the scene of a dead body. A citizen walking his dog has discovered the corpse of a young adult female in some bushes near a sidewalk. The woman appears to have been beaten and her clothing violently torn. The young officer believes he has encountered his first murder victim – but has he?
Each year in the United States, more than 100 people die as a result of being struck by lightning. The initial death scene when viewed by either the uniformed officer or even the most seasoned homicide investigator can be perplexing and well – somewhat “shocking.” Those unfamiliar with lightning deaths are often completely taken aback by the crime scene and may not recognize it for what it is. To the untrained eye, the scene and body can more closely resemble a homicide than an accidental death.
A single lightning flash can generate between 100 million and 1 billion volts, while producing between 10,000 and 200,000 amps. The average lightning flash can light a 100 watt bulb for three months. This enormous power can actually propel victims of a lightning strike several feet into the air. They may land on their heads, causing massive trauma that simulates or mimics blunt force trauma. The victims’ eardrums may burst. Blood pours from the ears and nose, creating the illusion that they have suffered a brutal beating.
The death scene is further complicated by the intense heat created during a lightning flash. In less than a second, the air surrounding a lightning strike can easily reach temperatures of 50,000°F, which is hotter than the surface of the sun. When the air along the lightning channel is heated to this temperature, it rapidly expands then quickly contracts causing the familiar crack of thunder.
The layer of air trapped between the clothing and the body of the victim can also become super- heated. This rapidly expanding, super-heated air can rip, tear and even shred clothing and shoes. In some cases, the clothes and shoes may literally “explode” from the body only to be discovered some distance away in tatters. Victims of lightning strikes are frequently found clad solely in their undergarments. In the case of a female victim, where there is also visible trauma, the initial erroneous assumption may be that a sexual assault has occurred. When individuals are found on or near a roadway in torn and shredded clothing, they are often mistakenly thought to be the victims of a hit and run driver.
During a lightning strike, metal materials such as jewelry, pant zippers, belt buckles, brassiere under wire, and rivets on denim jeans may become red hot and burn the flesh of
the victim. These distinctive patterned burns will confound the investigator until he or she is able to discover the corresponding metal item that created them. Some metal objects including coins, keys in a pocket or even earrings may become partially melted and display distinctive arc marks. Ferrous metal objects (iron and steel) will likely become magnetized. A victim’s wristwatch may be permanently immobilized — time eerily frozen by the instant solidification of the internal parts.
Lightning strike victims occasionally exhibit entry and exit holes (where the electrical charge has passed through the body), which bear some similarity to gunshot entrance and exit wounds. Those who are unfamiliar with these types of bullet wounds could be easily misled into assuming that the victim has been shot. While the initial contact point in an ordinary electrocution is normally found on the arms or wrists, lightning entry points are generally discovered on the head, neck and shoulders. The position of the victim at the time of the strike can affect the location of the entry wound. Exit points may appear on the heels, buttocks or, in males, through the scrotum.
A curious phenomenon known as “Litchtenberg figures” is symptomatic of high voltage electrocutions and is particularly prevalent in lightning deaths. Litchtenberg figures are “arborescent” or fern-like injuries of the skin that appear within minutes of the accident and typically fade within 24-36 hours. These red, branching patterns are most evident at time of the autopsy. As with most traumas, several hours in the refrigerated conditions of the morgue will enhance or heighten the visibility of the wound. Litchtenberg figures are named for Georg Litchtenberg, a German physicist who discovered the patterns in 1777 while experimenting with static electricity. To this day, their exact cause, and why they appear on the corpses of lightning victims, is unknown.
For the novice investigator, there are several myths associated with lightning deaths that need to be dispelled. One is the false notion that the victim (even when deceased) has somehow retained a deadly electrical charge, and physical contact with that person now becomes dangerous. This fallacious assumption has been known to cause needless delays in initiating efforts to resuscitate the victim. The body does not act as a gigantic capacitor. There are no hazards connected with touching the victim, and aid should be rendered immediately.
Another persistent myth is that bodies will be charred, scorched and blackened. It is also erroneously assumed that victims will burst into flames when struck and continue to burn until incinerated or extinguished. Both accidental electrocutions and lightning strikes can
result in pronounced burning at the point of contact or entry; however, these marks are generally small. Secondary burning of the flesh is possible if the victim’s clothing has ignited; and, as mentioned earlier, burns may appear when metal objects that are intensely heated sear the skin. Minor singeing of the hair may also be observed.
However, combustion of the entire body is virtually unheard of in a lightning strike. Unlike an industrial electrocution, the duration of the shock is much shorter, and more importantly, most of the energy is passed over the surface of the body during a process known as “external flashover.” This external flashover minimizes burning of the skin and flesh.
An additional misguided assumption is that a lightning flash can only occur during a thunderstorm. A deadly lightning flash can happen on a clear day when no storms are present. Two highly vulnerable periods are the intervals both preceding and following a storm. Lightning has been known to strike as far as ten miles away from any rainfall. It is therefore possible for lightning to occur when skies are observed to be blue and cloudless. There have been documented instances where lightning has traveled over twenty-five miles from the thunderstorm cloud that created it.
Recently, a 33-year-old father of two was struck and killed near Miami International Airport when thunderheads were absent. The victim was employed by a company that repaired vehicle windshields. He was standing in a parking lot just west of the airport and was replacing a cracked windshield when he was struck. The lightning bolt hit him directly in the center of the forehead, killing him instantly. There were scattered clouds in the area at the time, but no hint of storm activity.
Amazingly, the creation of massive lightning is not restricted to thunderstorms alone. It has frequently been observed during hurricanes, snow storms, volcanic eruptions, huge forest fires, and nuclear detonations. Even the launch of the space shuttle is capable of creating a thunderbolt. The process by which lightning charges are created in these phenomenons (including thunderstorms) is actually quite elementary. Updrafts cause particles (usually ice crystals) to continuously collide. The constant swirling and banging together of these particles creates negative and positive charges within the cloud. An electrical differential develops between the cloud and surrounding objects including the ground, other clouds, or even a person. Just as a magnet is attracted to another magnet of the opposite polarity, positive charges and negative charges are attracted to each other. As the differential becomes greater and greater, the attraction may be strong enough to form a lightning bolt by connecting the positive and negative charges.
The false notion also persists that a person within a vehicle is totally protected from the dangers of lightning. This is simply not true. When lightning strikes a vehicle directly, all metal surfaces become electrified and can cause the occupants serious injury or even death. Bolts of lightning can flatten tires, shatter glass, or shred a convertible top. The potency of the strike often ignites the vehicle, causing it to become completely engulfed
in flames. This of course poses serious difficulties for the patrol officer or investigator who must decipher this puzzling enigma. A vehicle consumed by fire, which contains a dead body, may appear to be a murder scene. The palpable explanation may be that the victim has been murdered and the vehicle set afire to destroy any evidence of the crime. Rather, the reality may be that the true culprit is a lightning strike.
FREQUENCY AND GENDER
Florida experiences more than twice as many lightning-related casualties compared to any other state. The Pacific Northwest encounters the fewest episodes of lightning-related deaths. Virtually every state has deaths attributed to lightning strikes. The only state that has not recorded a lightning death in the past 50 years is Alaska. As may be expected, the summer months produce more lightning activity throughout the country than any other time of year with peak activity occurring in the month of July. Nearly 70 percent of all fatalities occur between noon and 4 p.m. Research shows that the Fourth of July is the deadliest day of the year for lightning strikes. This is undoubtedly due to the abundance of both outdoor activities and lightning frequency. Cause of death is predominately attributed to ventricular fibrillation or cardiac arrhythmia. These are anomalies caused by disruptions of the heart’s internal electrical system. If not quickly corrected, they are irregularities that will result in death.
Incredibly, males are killed by lightning four-times more often than females. Statistically, males account for 84 percent of all lightning related deaths. The reason for this disparity is unknown. Lightning strikes are not always fatal; however, those who do survive often suffer horrible aftereffects including blindness, deafness and irreversible brain damage. Those who suffer a direct strike and are resuscitated, typically expire within days. The internal organs of the victim, particularly the heart and kidneys, are in many cases severely damaged by the electrical jolt. The portion of the brain that is responsible for respiration may be irreparably injured and, therefore, cease to function properly. In most cases, death, although not immediate, is inevitable. This creates an additional difficulty for the death investigator who is not able to view the original accident scene but is notified only after the victim succumbs at the hospital.
In conclusion, the scene of an accidental lightning death can be complex, confusing and open to misinterpretation. The massive amounts of energy unleashed during a lightning flash can create a misleading scene. A basic knowledge of the dynamics involved can aid in the correct explanation of the event and prevent the investigating officer from being deceived by equivocal clues. Investigators, training officers and supervisors should be cognizant of the illusions a lightning strike may create and insure that they, or their subordinates, are not deluded into believing that anything more sinister than a simple
accidental death has taken place. Valuable agency resources can be preserved by reacting knowledgably, and not impulsively, when confronting a lightning-caused death.