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Four Swimmers Injured by Lightning

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July 26, 2005

The following report is rewritten from an article first publshed by CHRIS TISCH, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer

Clearwater Beach- An afternoon thunderstorm rolled onto Clearwater Beach, Florida, Saturday, bringing heavy rain and dangerous lightning.

Micheal Pitcher and his girlfriend saw the storm coming and sought safety under a pier. They looked back and saw about 20 people still in the water.

"All those people out in the water, somebody's going to get struck by lightning," Pitcher said. Just as he said those words, a lightning bolt 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 people sustained critical injuries and were taken to Morton Plant Hospital. Two others with serious injuries were taken to Bayfront Medical Center and Largo Medical Center.

The injured were identified as 19-year-old Casey Douglas and her fiancé, Darrell Fults, 22, who were on vacation from Franklin, Tennessee, a pregnant woman, Susan Darquea, and an unidentified teenage girl from Ecuador.

Pitcher, 46, and girlfriend Susan Berg, 35, said it appeared that Fults was 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, Fult'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."

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.

Bystanders jumped in the water and dragged Fults ashore, unconscious and critically injured by the lightning strike. The other three victims were also brought on shore to safety.

After an initially poor prognosis, Fults' condition was upgraded Monday morning to fair at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, offering relief to family members who rushed to his bedside from Tennessee.

``I had bad feelings on the way down here,'' said Gentry Fox, Fults' stepfather, who is an assistant fire chief in Smyrna, Tenn. ``I was fearing the worst.''

Douglas recovered more quickly, though her memory of the lightning strike is hazy. During the ambulance ride to the hospital, she could not remember her name when asked by paramedics. Her chest ached from the CPR they administered.

Fults regained consciousness Sunday and started breathing on his own. Although dazed, he spoke to Douglas on Monday, asking about their 1-month-old son.

"He understands where he is at and what has happened,'' Fox said.

Douglas said doctors told her that she and Fults should expect no complications, though they will undergo further examination. Douglas was discharged from Morton Plant on Monday.

Susan Darquea, was first was taken to Largo Medical Center and was transferred to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. She was released Sunday.

The unidentified teenage girl from Ecuador was also was taken to Largo Medical Center but was transferred to an undisclosed location.

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.


[Last modified July 24, 2005, 00:22:18]

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