A farmer survives a lightning strike, but his porkers are not so lucky.
Walter Barr, of Annefield, in Clarke County, got the shock of his life April 2, 1936, when he was struck by lightning. The shocker was, he was able to walk into the offices of the Clarke Courier just two days later to talk about it.
As Barr was feeding his two hogs, a “freakish storm” came up, and a bolt of lightning zapped him, knocking him unconscious. “I never knew what hit me,” he told the Courier. “When I came to, I ran as fast as I could away from the place.” The hogs, unfortunately, had been killed by the strike. Barr was left to ponder how he had survived. The consensus was that his rubber boots had insulated him from the jolt of electricity.
No way, says LeRoy Dennison, a retired master chief marine science technician and former school chief at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, where meteorology was a significant part of the curriculum. “A thin rubber sole is not enough insulation to stop lightning,” he says. “If there is enough amperage and voltage for the electricity to arc hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet, a thin layer of rubber is not going to stop it.” In fact, the top of Barr’s left boot was completely torn from the lower portion by the force of the lightning.
What spared Barr was probably the same thing that made barbecue of his hogs. “Walter managed to live because he was not solidly grounded with metal into the earth,” Dennison says. Another, nearby “channel with a good ground” is probably what saved him. What could have provided that better ground? Unfortunately for the hogs, Dennison says, it was probably their feed trough: “I assume that the hogs were eating from a metal trough that was grounded. As the millions of volts passed through the trough to the ground, they were killed.”
Barr told the paper, “I hope the old saying is true that lightning never strikes in the same place a second time.” Wishful thinking. Virginia boasts a record case that solidly disproves the old chestnut. Roy Sullivan, hired as a ranger at Shenandoah National Park in 1936, the year it was dedicated (the park turns 79 this year), was nicknamed the Human Lightning Rod. He survived seven strikes between 1942 and 1977, most while working at the park. He said that his first strike actually came when he was a child. He was cutting wheat with his father when lightning struck his scythe. His wife herself was struck once. Two of Sullivan’s ranger hats are exhibited in the Guinness World Records Exhibit halls. He took his own life in 1983, in Dooms, Virginia.
A bit of practical advice about a serious topic: If you find yourself outdoors during a sudden storm, Dennison says, “Put down any metal you may be carrying—golf club, softball bat, umbrella. Don’t stand under a tree. And if your hair starts to rise up and you smell ozone [the smell of rainstorms], hit the deck. Lightning is getting ready to strike where you are.” And it goes without saying: move quickly away from any metal feed troughs.