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The Story of a Strike

One bolt of lightning has enough energy to flash on every lightbulb in your town. How did one strike victim live to tell her story?

By Laura Allen | null , null

Thunder rumbled overhead as Gretel Ehrlich crossed her ranch that afternoon, but she wasn't worried. The black stormclouds were a mile away. When a thunderclap scared one of her dogs, she patted him and said everything would be OK.

Next thing she knew, Gretel woke up, scratched and bleeding. "I couldn't swallow or talk, and I couldn't move my legs, " she remembers. "The dogs were gone. What had happened? I lifted my head and saw flashes of lightning striking the ground. Then I knew — I had been struck by lightning."

Power and Speed

Zooming in at more than 160,000 km (100,000 mi) per second, lightning is a speeding stream of electricity in the sky. Lightning gets hotter than the sun, and has the power to cut through steel, start forest fires, and crack trees in half.

So how could anyone survive a strike? "Lightning is not good at killing you because it flashes so fast," says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper. "It may not even have time to burn you." Most of the electricity flashes over the skin. Some finds its way into the body -- probably through the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. "The electricity races in and out faster than you can blink," says Mary Ann.

Victims rarely feel the full power of a bolt. Most people who are "struck" actually feel electricity that has passed through the ground or another object.

A Shock to the System

Still, a split second of electricity, sent through the ground, can do a lot of damage. Here's what lightning did to Gretel:

  • THREW HER FAR — "Muscles tighten suddenly and make your body fling itself upward," says Mary Ann. A hard landing gave Gretel cuts, bruises, and broken ribs.

  • STOPPED HER HEART AND MADE IT HARD TO BREATHE —  Electricity can affect the parts of your brain that control your heart and lungs. "Doctors think my heart stopped, and landing hard started it again," says Gretel. "Being thrown saved my life!"

  • TEMPORARILY PARALYZED SOME MUSCLES — When she finally managed to pull herself up, Gretel walked back to her house by lifting up her thighs with her hands.

  • BURNED HER — Electricity makes heat — and that heat burned Gretel's skin. The burns ran up and down her body. "Electricity followed the path of her sweat," says Mary Ann. Gretel also felt a painful burn on her back, though there was no mark. Doctors think electricity left her body in that spot, and burned her under the skin.

After the Flash

Once home, Gretel just managed to call 911 before she passed out. "I felt terrible — a hundred times worse than if I had the worst flu in the world," she says. Her dogs had been struck too, and had minor cuts and scrapes. "At first they were so spooked that when they smelled my burned skin they ran away from me!" she says.

It took a few years for Gretel to recover. Even now, five years later, effects of the accident remain. "Loud, unexpected sounds still frighten me," she says. She's back to riding horses, climbing mountains, and doing ranch work as usual — but now Gretel is extra cautious. "I still climb mountains," says Gretel. "But now I always look out for storms!"

Leaping Electricity!

Static electricity is the key to any kind of lightning. Static can have two charges: negative and positive. When negative charges build up in one area, and positive charges build up in another, a beam of electricity may shoot across to even things out. ZAP — It's lightning. Here's how static makes both natural, and human-made, lightning:

During a storm, water drops in a cloud rub against each other. This friction charges the cloud with static. Negative drops fall to the bottom of the cloud, and positive drops rise. The ground takes on a positive charge. That's enough to send a bolt flying: from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground.

Stop and Think

Lightning victims often don't remember being struck. If you were a doctor, how would you be sure that a patient had been struck?

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