Sometimes they’ll keep the clothing, the strips of shirt or trousers that weren’t cut away and discarded by the doctors and nurses. They’ll tell and retell their story at family gatherings and online, sharing pictures and news reports of survivals like their own or far bigger tragedies. The video of a tourist hit on a Brazilian beach or the Texan struck dead while out running. The 65 people killed during four stormy days in Bangladesh.
Only by piecing together the bystander reports, the singed clothing and the burnt skin can survivors start to construct their own picture of the possible trajectory of the electrical current, one that can approach 200 million volts and travel at one-third of the speed of light.
In this way, Jaime Santana’s family have stitched together some of what happened that Saturday afternoon in April 2016, through his injuries, burnt clothing and, most of all, his shredded broad-brimmed straw hat. “It looks like somebody threw a cannonball through it,” says Sydney Vail, a trauma surgeon in Phoenix, Arizona, who helped care for Jaime after he arrived by ambulance, his heart having been shocked several times along the way as paramedics struggled to stabilise its rhythm.
Jaime had been horse-riding with his brother-in-law and two others in the mountains behind his brother-in-law’s home outside Phoenix, a frequent weekend pastime. Dark clouds had formed, heading in their direction, so the group had started back.
They had nearly reached the house when it happened, says Alejandro Torres, Jaime’s brother-in-law. He paces out the area involved, the landscape dotted with small creosote bushes just behind his acre of property. In the distance, the desert mountains rise, rippled chocolate-brown peaks against the horizon.
The riders had witnessed quite a bit of lightning as they neared Alejandro’s house, enough that they had commented on the dramatic zigzags across the sky. But scarcely a drop of rain had fallen as they approached the horse corrals, just several hundred feet from the back of the property.
Alejandro doesn’t think he was knocked out for long. When he regained consciousness, he was lying face down on the ground, sore all over. His horse was gone.
The two other riders appeared shaken but unharmed. Alejandro went looking for Jaime, who he found on the other side of his fallen horse. Alejandro brushed against the horse’s legs as he walked passed. They felt hard, like metal, he says, punctuating his English with some Spanish.
He reached Jaime: “I see smoke coming up – that’s when I got scared.” Flames were coming off of Jaime’s chest. Three times Alejandro beat out the flames with his hands. Three times they reignited.
It wasn’t until later, after a neighbour had come running from a distant property to help and the paramedics had arrived, that they began to realise what had happened – Jaime had been struck by lightning.
Justin Gauger wishes his memory of when he was struck – while fishing for trout at a lake near Flagstaff, Arizona – wasn’t so vivid. If it weren’t, he wonders, perhaps the anxiety and lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder wouldn’t have trailed him for so long. Even now, some three years later, when a storm moves in, the flickering flashes of light approaching, he’s most comfortable sitting in his bathroom closet, monitoring its progress with an app on his phone.
An avid fisherman, Justin had initially been elated when the rain started that August afternoon. The storm had kicked up suddenly, as they often do during the summer monsoon season. Fish are more likely to bite when it’s raining, he told his wife, Rachel.
But as the rain picked up, becoming stronger and then turning into hail, his wife and daughter headed for the truck, followed later by his son. The pellets grew larger, approaching golf ball size, and really started to hurt as they pounded Justin’s head and body.
Giving up, he grabbed a nearby folding canvas chair – the charring on one corner is still visible today – and turned to head for the truck. Rachel was filming the storm from the front seat, planning to catch her husband streaking back as the hail intensified. She pulls up the video on her phone.