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The Unlucky Few

Lightning Strike Survivors Meet For World Conference

People who are struck by lighting stand a surprisingly good chance of surviving, but then often end up with mysterious ailments. Lightning strike survivors are holding a world conference in a bid to overcome their trauma.

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Friday, 6/29/2007   06:38 PM

The survivors stand up, one by one, and tell their stories. Steve has gone through 38 operations. Marianne still feels disoriented and walks into tables and doorframes. Mike doesn't need crutches any more. Linda is so overcome by her tears that she can barely speak. She was hit by lightning four times in 24 years.

These tales take up half the morning in a dimly lit hotel conference room in Pigeon Forge, not far from the Dollywood theme park that has put this remote town in Tennessee on the map. The town's main drag is home to a long string of tourist attractions, from amusement arcades to bumper cars to carnival-like attractions, including a replica of a mine complete with a man-made stream, where visitors enthusiastically dig through buckets of gravel -- at $35 apiece -- to search for semiprecious stones.

The Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International World Conference taking place down a side street sounds like yet another attraction -- a particularly eccentric freak show, perhaps.

Most people would assume that almost all a lightning strike leaves behind is a small pile of ashes. In fact, dying from a lighting strike is relatively uncommon. Mary Ann Cooper, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, estimates that nine out of 10 people struck by lightning survive.

Cooper, one of a handful of experts in the field of lightning research, is a member of the board of the self-help association that organizes the survivors' conference each year. The association has 1,400 members, including many from countries other than the United States. They all share the experience of being overlooked, despite sometimes being severely injured, while most of the focus is on those killed by lightning. There are rare exceptions, such as the recent incident at a soccer match in the northern German city of Wenden, when three girls survived a single lightning strike. But this sort of thing is more commonplace than miraculous. The truly lucky ones are those who don't suffer any long-term damage.

The more than 100 survivors who have gathered in Pigeon Forge weren't quite so lucky. They report mysterious pains, panic attacks and bouts of severe confusion, and the challenge of convincing the rest of the world to believe them. Lightning rarely causes noticeable burn scars, so that few victims have any physical evidence to back up their stories. "This conference is the only place," says association member Jim Segneri, "where I can answer truthfully when someone asks me how I'm doing." The meeting lasts three days, and it features helpful presentations by experts and a vote for the "Survivor of the Year."

At last year's conference that distinction went to Linda Cooper, the woman who has been struck by lightning four times. She was struck the first time 24 years ago in front of a post office, the second time while making a phone call at home, the third time while washing dishes (the lightning traveled from the sink to her arms) and the last time through an open car window. This is a lot, even for someone from Florida, where lightning strikes about 40 times per square kilometer each year (in Germany it rarely exceeds four). But there are people who have been struck by lightning even more often. The current record holder is Roy Sullivan, a park ranger from Virginia who has since died -- he was hit by lighting seven times.

The first time she was hit Linda Cooper lost her memory. A teacher, she was no longer able to solve even simply arithmetic problems. It took Cooper 10 years to fully regain her capacity for thought. But then, as she says, "lighting hit me the second time."

For most people in the room, one lightning strike was enough. Large, powerful-looking men tremble when they tell their stories, even if it happened years ago.

One man complains that he has been "devastated" since his lightning strike, and that he is now slow in the head and easily confused. Another man has lost the ability to feel cold. He says that he has to see his arms turning blue before he puts on a jacket. A woman talks about how lightning changed her personality, making her more irritable, high-strung and hypersensitive. "I look at myself and feel like I'm looking at a stranger," she says.

Renee Tressler remembers that the sky turned a greenish, poisonous-looking color. She was in her car driving to work, in a hurry because she was running late. She opened the window to dry her hair. The lightning struck her without warning "like a jack hammer hitting my teeth," she says. "It was the loudest bang I've ever heard." It happened years ago, but Tressler, a former medical technician, has had trouble concentrating ever since, and her right lower leg is shrinking. She now walks with a cane.

The effects of lightning differ from one person to the next and are completely unpredictable. But the one thing all victims have in common is that, for fractions of a second, the body is exposed to an electric charge of up to tens of thousands of amperes -- enough electricity to power billions of light bulbs for a split second. The damage depends on the path the current seeks as it passes through the body to the ground.

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