(Brandon Baker showing off the lightning-induced holes in his head.) Credit: Brandon Baker
During storm season, you don’t have to be on a mountaintop — or even outside — to be struck by lightning. But even if you take most of the right precautions in a thunderstorm, it still might not be enough.
That’s a lesson Brandon Baker learned the hard way.
Baker, a 31-year-old science major, got zapped when lightning struck the peak he was climbing in the Colorado Rockies. It left him with two one-to-two-inch holes in his head, burns all over his body and loss of full use of his legs. For the first few weeks he had to lean back in order to feel like he was standing up.
“I was playing with fire. Being up there that late in the day was not the best idea. The later in the day, the greater the risk,” Baker said.
Baker split off from the group he was hiking with, wisely telling them where he was going. When he reached the summit, the sky was clear. But then Baker saw an ominous-looking cloud rapidly rolling over the mountain.
“The air started getting staticky; it felt like someone had rubbed a balloon on my head in the middle of winter. So I decided that walking through an electrical field being the tallest thing on the top of the tallest thing was not a good idea,” Baker said.
He quickly ducked under a rock ridge and hoped for the best. He saw a few flashes, and the next thing he knew, it was 7:30 the following morning.
Thanks to his six-week rehabilitation regimen, Baker can now move about using a wheelchair and a walker. That has allowed him to head back to two fall classes, but he still tires easily and has a hard time balancing because his toes still tingle. Baker hasn’t had any memory loss or slurred speech.
Tim Samaras, an engineer and lightning expert for Discovery Channel’s show “Storm Chasers,” confirms Baker was lucky.
“People don’t usually survive because it severely disrupts the system needed to keep the heart beating,” he said.
Samaras also agrees Baker shouldn’t have been hiking a mountain peak in the afternoon. Still, he commends Baker for hunkering down under a low-lying rock ledge.
“What he did may have saved his life. If he was out in the open and took a direct strike, that would have been the end of him,” Samaras said.
He suspects Baker was electrocuted by a cloud-to-ground bolt that traveled up to where he was laying.
Even if you take refuge in a house, stay away from the windows.
“Glass is a pretty darn good insulator, but air is as well. If Mother Nature creates a lightning strike through several thousand feet of air, it’s not going to stop through a quarter-inch window pane,” Samaras explained.
While you’re in the house, mind the physical contact you have with certain elements.
“Water is a lot better conductor than air,” said Samaras. Since plumbing is metal, you shouldn’t be splishing and splashing in your tub, shower or sink.
A landline, if indeed you still own one, can also serve as an electrical conductor, as can other electrical appliances. If you use your cell phone, leave it unplugged.
If you can’t get to a house, hide in a car. Yes, lightning can strike a motor vehicle. Don’t touch any metal or play with appliances plugged in into the battery charger.
“Cars aren’t safe because of rubber tires; they’re safe because lightning travels on the outside of them. The vehicle acts as a Faraday cage, a metal capsule,” Samaras said, adding that four inches or rubber are no match for a high-voltage charge.
If you hear thunder coming from eight to 10 miles away, it’s time to seek shelter. No matter how far away you hear those thunderclaps, don’t go mountain climbing in the afternoon.
Baker says that’s the kind of lesson he’ll share when he obtains his degree and starts teaching high school.
“Basically it gives me bragging rights to say I got struck by lightning so you should listen because I’m a science teacher,” Baker said.