When Lightning Strikes, Better Safe Than Dead
Saturday I had the pleasure of producing the BYU-South Florida game on KDXU.
When I say "producing," well that's just a fancy radio word for playing the local commercials during the national radio broadcast put out by BYU Radio and Greg Wrubell.
And when I say pleasure, I'm being facetious. Not there was anything wrong with the broadcast and the BYU team. They did an excellent job of working through a difficult situation -- one I've faced many times in my broadcast career.
A lightning delay.
For the BYU game Saturday, lightning put off the contest by nearly three hours. The game was supposed to start at 2:03 p.m. and it was nearly 4 o'clock when the game finally kicked off.
And while BYU won, I had a bitter taste in my mouth as my 4-hour producer gig turned into a seven-hour marathon.
The NCAA rules clearly state that if lightning is within six miles, the field and stands must be cleared and the game must be suspended until 30 minutes after that lightning strike. And if another bolt appears, the 30-minute clock starts over. And again. And again. And so forth.
That's what happened to BYU at South Florida. The storm wouldn't quit.
The lightning delay stole my Saturday, which got me to wondering if anyone has ever been struck by lightning at a football game.
Actually, yes. At least futbol, anyway.
Back in 1998, 11 people, an entire soccer team, died when lightning struck the field. It was far away, in the Congo. But it was real and it was scary.
From The Independent:
"FOOTBALL FANS in the central African state of Congo were hurling accusations of witchcraft at each other yesterday after a freak blast of lightning struck dead an entire team on the playing field while their opponents were left completely untouched.
The bizarre blow by the weather to all 11 members of the football team was reported in the daily newspaper L'Avenir in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo.
"Lightning killed at a stroke 11 young people aged between 20 and 35 years during a football match," the newspaper reported . It went on to say that 30 other people had received burns at the weekend match, held in the eastern province of Kasai. "The athletes from Basanga [the home team] curiously came out of this catastrophe unscathed."
An inquest hearing at Blackpool Town Hall today heard how the young footballer fell to the floor when the weather changed "very quickly" during the training session."
According to the National Weather Service:
"Anyone who is outside in the summer needs to understand some basic information about lightning. Each year, thunderstorms produce an estimated 20 to 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes in the United States — each one of those flashes is a potential killer. Some of those flashes strike directly under the storm where it is raining, but some of the flashes reach out away from the storm where people perceive the lightning threat to be low or nonexistent, and catch people by surprise.
Based on cases documented by the National Weather Service in recent years, about 30 people are killed by lightning each year and hundreds more are injured, some suffering devastating neurological injuries that persist for the rest of their lives. About two thirds of the deaths are associated with outdoor recreational activities.
Officials responsible for sports outdoor activities need to understand thunderstorms and lightning to make educated decisions on when to seek safety. Without this knowledge, officials may base their decisions on personal experience and or a desire to complete the activity. Unfortunately, decisions based on past experience or a desire to complete the activity can put the lives of those involved at risk."
For organized outdoor activities, the National Weather Service recommends that organizers have a lightning safety plan and follow it without exception. The plan should give clear and specific safety guidelines to eliminate errors in judgment. These guidelines should address the following questions."
So, as much as I hate to admit it, lightning delays are correct and responsible. We've had a few here in Southern Utah at local high school games, leading to some late nights and some interesting radio broadcasts.
The truth is that getting struck by lightning is very rare (1-in-280,000 chance) and dying from a lightning strike is incredibly unusual (chances are 1-in-2 million). But as long as there's a chance, officials will continue to side with safety.
According to the NCAA : "Lightning awareness should be heightened at the first flash of lightning, clap of thunder, and/or other signs of an impending storm, such as increasing winds or darkening skies, no matter how far away. These types of activities should be treated as a warning or wake-up call to athletics personnel. Lightning safety experts suggest that if you hear thunder, begin preparation for evacuation. If you see lightning, consider suspending activities and evacuating to designated safer locations."
And while it may ruin a Saturday and delay a game, the alternative (you know, death) is a very bad option.
SOME LIGHTNING FACTS:
- Lightning travels at approximately 270,000 miles an hour (a commercial jet goes about 500 MPH).
- Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela is the most lightning-struck place in the world, with the lake drawing as many as a million lightning strikes a year.
- Lightning is super heated -- about 30,000 degrees Celsius. That's hotter than the surface of the sun!
- There are about 44 lightning strikes around the world every second.
- Lightning strikes are generally very long, but also very thin. Lightning bolts are generally 2-3 miles long, but only a few centimeters wide. They appear wider to our eyes because of their brightness and intensity.
- As far as I could find, NO FAN OR PLAYER HAS EVER BEEN KILLED OR EVEN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING AT AN American football game.