A man in his 20s was tossing a football to his friend on the beach on a sunny afternoon. A matron of honor was checking her car’s windows at a wedding rehearsal dinner as a thunderstorm approached. And two teens home from college were playing a friendly pickup game of soccer when the sky grew dark.
All four of those people lost their lives when bolts of lightning zipped down from the sky.
They were just four of the 17 men and women who were killed by lightning strikes in New Jersey during the past 20 years, according to data from the National Weather Service and news reports from The Star-Ledger, NJ.com and other media outlets.
Another 114 people in the Garden State were injured by lightning during the same time span.
Even though that number is relatively low compared to other states, like Florida and Texas, it left many families shattered with tragic losses and also served as a stark reminder of the massive power of electrical discharges from the sky.
While the vast majority of lightning fatalities in the United States occur during the peak thunderstorm season — June, July and August — they can happen in other months as well.
They also can occur miles away from where storm clouds are looming, which is why the National Weather Service often reminds the public, “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
LIGHTNING SAFETY TIPS
Experts say lightning can strike just about anywhere, anytime and under any circumstance. But with the peak thunderstorm season and Lightning Safety Awareness Week now underway, meteorologists and safety officials are encouraging people to be mindful of Mother Nature’s deadly power.
Here are some safety tips from the National Weather Service, the National Lightning Safety Council and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Check the weather forecast: Experts say it’s important to check the local weather forecast and keep an eye on the sky before taking part in any outdoor activities or gatherings. “If the forecast calls for thunderstorms, postpone your trip or activity, or make sure adequate safe shelter is readily available,” the CDC says.
- Pay attention to thunder: “If you can hear thunder, you are in danger,” the weather service says in a lightning safety tip sheet. “Don’t be fooled by blue skies. If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to pose an immediate threat.”
- Seek shelter indoors: If you hear thunder or notice a storm approaching, find a safe, sturdy, enclosed structure and seek shelter there. Safe shelters include homes, offices, shopping centers and hard-top vehicles with the windows rolled up — if you have no other options.
- Separate from other people: If you are stuck outside with a group of people during a thunderstorm, experts say you should separate from each other, because “this will reduce the number of injuries if lightning strikes the ground.” They also say it boosts the chances someone in the group will be able to call for help if someone is struck.
If you are caught out in the open and can’t find a safe shelter when a thunderstorm hits, the CDC offers these tips:
- Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges, or peaks.
- Never lie flat on the ground. Crouch down in a ball-like position with your head tucked and hands over your ears so that you are down low with minimal contact with the ground.
- Never shelter under an isolated tree, tower or utility pole, because lightning tends to strike taller objects.
- Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.
- Immediately get out of and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water.
- Stay away from objects that conduct electricity, such as barbed wire fences, power lines or windmills. (The National Weather Service says metal does not attract lightning, but lightning can travel long distances through it.)
“The most important action is to remove yourself from danger,” the CDC says. “Crouching or getting low to the ground can reduce your chances of being struck, but does not remove you from danger.”
Even if you are indoors when a thunderstorm hits, experts say you should take these precautions: Avoid contact with any water sources, like faucets, showers or dishwashers; avoid electrical equipment, including laptops and game systems; and avoid windows, doors, porches and concrete surfaces.
LIGHTNING DEATHS IN NEW JERSEY
Here is a look at the 17 lightning fatalities in the Garden State during the past two decades. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 71.
Lightning on a sunny day
Date: June 30, 2001
Location: Island Beach, Ocean County
A 22-year-old man from East Windsor was struck and killed by lightning while tossing a football with his friend on the beach at Island Beach State Park on June 30, 2001, when the sun was shining. The victim’s friend, a 23-year-old Princeton man, was injured by the same bolt, but suffered only minor burns, according to the National Weather Service. The lightning originated from a thunderstorm that developed offshore, one or two miles east of the beach, stunning lifeguards and other park employees, who said the bolt appeared to come out of nowhere.
Tragedy on a crabbing boat
Date: Aug. 11, 2001
Location: Dividing Creek section of Downe Township, Burlington County
A lightning bolt killed a 29-year-old man while he was crabbing with his father on the Oranoaken Creek in the Egg Island Wildlife Management Area in Downe Township on Aug. 11, 2001. The National Weather Service said the men were in a non-motorized crabbing boat when a thunderstorm rolled in, and the victim was struck in the head by lightning. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Fatal bolt on the beach
Date: July 11, 2002
Location: Bradley Beach, Monmouth County
A 28-year-old woman was struck and killed by lightning on the LaReine Avenue Beach in Bradley Beach during the early evening on July 11, 2002. The National Weather Service said she was found in distress on the beach with burn marks in the mid-section of her body before she passed away. The New York Times said the victim had been on the beach with her family when the bolt of lightning hit her.
Death of a daredevil
Date: June 23, 2006
Location: Allerton, Hunterdon County
A 59-year-old balloonist died June 24, 2006, one day after lightning struck as he slept in a hammock in Round Valley State Park in the Lebanon section of Clinton Township. “Lightning struck a tree where the hammock was attached,” the victim’s son told NJ Advance Media. The victim, a Holmdel resident, was a daring balloonist who stood atop his balloon after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and waved a U.S. flag. At the time of his death, he was on a kayaking trip.
Double tragedy on a soccer field
Date: July 22, 2006
Location: Montvale, Bergen County
Two friends from Bergen County were home from college and playing a pickup soccer game at an elementary school in Montvale when lightning struck on July 22, 2006. One was an 18-year-old from Woodcliff Lake and the other was a 19-year-old from River Vale, and they were hit by a bolt as they were walking off the field with other players. The two friends died later that night at Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood of severe burns and trauma. The deaths prompted Bergen County to invest in lightning detection systems for its athletic fields.
Matron of honor at rehearsal dinner
Date: Aug. 17, 2007
Location: Howell, Monmouth County
A Howell woman had planned every detail of her best friend’s wedding. At a rehearsal dinner on Friday, Aug. 17, 2007 — the eve of the wedding — the skies turned dark above The Ivy League restaurant on Route 9. The matron of honor and the best man went outside to make sure their car windows were rolled up. That’s when a bolt of lightning struck. “Everybody was so happy, and then it became a nightmare,” the best man told The Star-Ledger. The best man had been knocked to his knees by a lightning blast that tore through the asphalt. Paramedics were unable to revive the woman and she was pronounced dead at a hospital in Freehold.
Danger on a fishing boat
Date: Sept. 8, 2007
Location: Hewitt, Passaic County
A 47-year-old West Milford man was on his boat fishing when a thunderstorm swept through Upper Greenwood Lake about 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007. The man was killed instantly when lightning struck. Police found him the next morning about 10 feet from shore, his body leaning against the boat’s windshield and a fishing pole rested in a holder on the side of the boat. He was the third person struck by lightning in New Jersey while boating that weekend. He was the only fatality.
Electrical storm on the beach
Date: July 27, 2008
Location: Atlantic Highlands, Monmouth County
A 38-year-old Elizabeth man was with friends on the southern end of Sandy Hook on July 27, 2008 when an electrical storm kicked up. Lightning hit the man and two of his friends, but the companions survived. According to news reports, the lightning was contained in a series of strong, fast-moving thunderstorms that socked the state with heavy rains and damaging winds, dropping nickel-sized hail in Camden, Cape May, Gloucester and Monmouth counties.
Cousins hit while seeking shelter from storm
Date: July 26, 2009
Location: Newark Heights, Essex County
Four cousins in Newark who sought refuge from a fierce thunderstorm sweeping through New Jersey were struck by lightning in a wooded area behind the Ivy Hill Park Apartments on Mount Vernon Place shortly after 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, 2009. A 22-year-old Newark man was killed, and his three cousins were injured. The lightning was part of a severe storm that brought quarter-sized hail, funnel clouds and winds as strong as 75 mph to parts of the state.
Struck while walking home from church
Date: July 19, 2010
Location: West Keansburg, Monmouth County
When lightning struck a house in Middletown on July 19, 2010, a 49-year-old man — who was walking home from church — stopped with a small group of spectators to watch the fire. Moments later, lightning struck a tree that the man was touching. Family members said at the time they believed the lightning may have been attracted to a leg brace that the victim has been wearing. A police officer and another bystander were treated and released after they were injured by the lightning. Six people in the home escaped the blaze, which started in the attic.
Lightning kills man decades after his father was struck
Date: July 3, 2011
Location: Hammonton, Atlantic County
When this victim was 5 years old, his father was struck and killed by lightning. So when a thunderstorm kicked up during a family picnic in Hammonton on July 3, 2011, he wasn’t afraid. “Don’t worry guys — you’re with me. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same family,” he said. Moments later, the 53-year-old man was struck by lightning. He died five days later.
Bolt hits Atlantic City construction workers
Date: Sept. 15, 2011
Location: Atlantic City, Atlantic County
A concrete worker from Linwood was part of a three-man crew working on the fifth-floor roof deck of the Revel casino and hotel on Sept. 15, 2011 when a fast-moving storm swirled overhead. Lightning struck the basket of a cement pourer while one worker was holding the handle, according to news reports. He died a short time after being struck. The two other workers were injured. In 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the construction company for violating federal regulations that say once a local storm warning has been issued, a person in charge must determine if equipment must be secured. The victim’s wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company.
Fatal lightning on the Jersey Shore
Date: July 7, 2012
Location: Monmouth Beach, Monmouth County
A 48-year-old woman left her hometown of New City in New York state for a brief vacation at the Jersey Shore. Like millions of others, she was seeking relief from temperatures reaching more than 100 degrees that week. Family members reported she was walking along a sea wall at Monmouth Beach when she was struck by lightning at 7:41 p.m. on Saturday, July 7, 2012. Two police officers, an off-duty Long Branch EMT and an off-duty employee from Jersey Central Power & Light tried to aid the woman. She died at a hospital about 6 a.m. the next morning.
Lightning strike while fishing
Date: Aug. 15, 2012
Location: West End, Monmouth County
A 41-year-old hospital aide from Bergen County who loved to go fishing was doing that with his 10-year-old son when he was hit by a lightning bolt on Aug. 15, 2012 at Lake Takanasee Beach in Long Branch. His son ran for help, and the father was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died the next day.
Killed while watching grandson play soccer
Date: Sept. 7, 2012
Location: Demarest, Bergen County
A 71-year-old Haworth resident was at Northern Valley High School in Demarest on Sept. 7, 2012 watching his grandson — a freshman at the school — play soccer. Suddenly, lightning struck two trees around the ball fields. The grandfather had been standing near one of the trees and was taken to Hackensack University Medical Center, where he died four hours later. His death and two others in 2012 prompted some communities to research lightning detection systems and other methods of keeping people safe. In East Rutherford, the borough council considered a law that would allow local police to ticket anyone defying an order to leave athletic fields during a storm.
Tragedy on a golf course
Date: June 9, 2021
Location: Westampton, Burlington County
A 70-year-old man was found unconscious and not breathing after being struck by lightning on the golf course at the Burlington County Country Club in Westampton on June 9, 2021, according to local police and EMS workers. The victim was later pronounced dead at the golf course. His death was the first fatal lightning strike reported in the United States this year, according to a lightning safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council.
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Len Melisurgo may be reached at [email protected].
Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at [email protected].