10 years after lightning strike, rules that could save lives

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Ten years ago, about 60 miles south of Washington, the early evening skies over Lee Hill Park in Fredericksburg, Va., were sunny and blue when the lives of two children and their families were suddenly, and shockingly, changed forever.
The umpire for a Little League game at the Lee Hill baseball field had suspended play just a few minutes earlier because of lightning in the distance. But with a nonthreatening sky directly overhead, 11-year-old Jonathan Colson and his 12-year-old teammate, Chelal Matos, stayed on the field to play catch.
About 6:25 p.m., the two were struck down by a bolt of lightning that, by all accounts, seemed to come out of nowhere with a bright flash and a loud “boom.”
Jonathan lay on the ground without a pulse and unable to breathe, despite CPR being administered by an emergency-room nurse who happened to be there. Jonathan’s pulse did return in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and he survived. His friend did not.
I spoke with Jonathan recently about that day.
“I was very good friends with Chelal. We would always be partners to play catch. We were always together,” Jonathan said. “It was perfectly light overhead, so it seemed okay at the time. We went out on the field, and we were playing catch, and then it happened.”
The tragic story of Jonathan and Chelal is a stark reminder of how dangerous lightning can be. It is a reminder that lightning is not only a threat underneath dark skies and pouring rain, but that it can travel horizontally 10 miles or more through clear skies before striking the ground.
These “bolts from the blue” are precisely why we say:
When thunder roars, go indoors!
If you are close enough to a storm to hear thunder, then you are close enough to be hit by lightning.
Likewise, we strongly recommend that you:
Wait at least 30 minutes after hearing the last thunder before going back outside.
There is no safe place to be outside during a thunderstorm. The safest place to be is indoors or inside a car (but don’t lean on the car doors).
You don’t need a smartphone to hear thunder or count 30 minutes, but there are several weather apps that can show you or alert you to approaching lightning. Schools and counties can invest in lightning detectors like the ones Jonathan’s family donated to schools in Spotsylvania County and to Spotsylvania County Parks and Recreation Department facilities. All outdoor venues and sports leagues should at least be familiar with these National Weather Service lightning safety tool kits.
Robert Matos, Chelal’s father, says that his family’s story has inspired others to adopt stricter lightning safety protocols.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t reminded about the tragedy that changed our lives forever,” Matos said. “Knowing that something positive has come out of the loss we’ve experienced does give us some comfort moving forward.”
The good news is that the number of U.S. lightning fatalities has decreased over time, averaging 27 deaths per year in the past decade compared with 43 per year over the past 30 years, according to the Weather Service. Injury estimates vary, but they, too, have trended downward, with the average having recently fallen below 150 per year, according to Statista.
Lightning deaths have declined in our region, as well. Longtime Washingtonians may remember the tragic story from the spring of 1991, when 15-year-old Noah Eig was killed and 10 people were injured by lightning at St. Albans School in Northwest Washington, shortly after a lacrosse game between St. Albans and Landon School had been suspended because of heavy rain. In another incident, several people were injured by lightning in the summer of 1998 during a concert at RFK Stadium.
Fortunately, the average number of lightning deaths in the District, Maryland and Virginia have decreased from 3.3 per year over the past 60 years to 0.4 per year over the past 10 years, according to Weather Service data.
The bad news? Lightning still kills or injures Americans all too often, as tracked in detail at StruckByLightning.org. Sadly, many of these documented lightning deaths and injuries could have been avoided with proper precautions. Just two simple rules:
When thunder roars, go indoors!
Wait at least 30 minutes after hearing the last thunder before going back outside.
Ten years after he and his friend were struck by lightning on June 3, 2009, Jonathan wants people to know that it can happen to anyone.
“There is that minuscule chance it could happen,” Jonathan said. “You’re not immune to this happening to you.”
When it happened to Jonathan, his brain swelled and he remained unresponsive for more than three weeks. He then had to relearn many of the basic functions of life, including how to eat, drink, talk and walk.
Today, Jonathan still has a quarter-size bald spot on his head where the lightning entered his body and faded burns on his legs.
Yet, in something of a culmination to his incredible recovery, Jonathan graduated last month from a community college in Fredericksburg, and will attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall.
“Every day is a blessing. I’m so blessed to be here,” Jonathan said. “And I think about Chelal almost every day.”
You can follow Jonathan’s story at https://www.facebook.com/thejonathancolsonstory/