Published August 24. 2013 12:00PM
In May 2000, Michael P. Utley, then a 48-year-old stockbroker, was playing in a charity golf tournament at the Pocasset Golf Course on Cape Cod when a storm alert sounded, ordering everybody to seek shelter immediately.
Fifteen seconds later Utley lie sprawled on the green, his shoes blown off, fingers and toes singed, and his hair completely burned – one of hundreds of people struck by lightning in the United States every year.
Technically, Utley was one of the dozens killed because doctors initially pronounced him dead, but they managed to revive him. Utley then spent 38 days in Brigham & Women s Hospital's Intensive Care Unit and another three months and another three months at the Health/South rehabilitation in Braintree, Mass.
Today, more than 11 years later, Utley still bears the physical and emotional scars of the strike, but can't recall specific details.
"I have no memory of being hit," he said in a telephone interview the other day.
The incident did more than leave scars, though – it motivated Utley to educate the public about the dangers of lightning, and a decade ago he helped create the website struckbylightning.org that keeps statistics on injuries and deaths caused by electrical storms, and also as an unofficial support group of sorts for victims.
His best advice is a simple message: "There is no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm."
I should have heeded Utley's words only minutes before I called him.
A friend and I were finishing a 10-mile kayak outing on Rangeley Lake in Maine on Thursday when a dark cloud appeared over Bald Mountain on the western shore.
"I think we can beat it," I said, realizing we had only about half a mile to go.
Thirty seconds later a squall veered toward us and torrential rain pounded down. We sprinted for shore and were just pulling our boats up when a deafening crash followed a blinding flash. We ditched the kayaks and sprinted for the cabin as more bolts hurtled down.
I told Utley about our close call.
"You were lucky," he said, and I agreed.
At one time authorities suggested people had plenty of time to seek shelter at the first signs of a storm, but Utley said that has promoted a false sense of security.
The narrative on his website explains the evolution of a new, more cautious approach to lightning safety:
In 2001 or so, NOAA started a lightning safety group that contained
the best people in the country on lightning and lightning safety. We
had people form Kennedy Space Center, University of Ohio, Vaisala, (a
private company in lightning detection), NOAA, and the National
Weather Service. I was invited into the group and learned a lot over
the years I was with them. It is because of this group that lightning
safety evolved from what it was to something based on science and what
worked. It was a hard job convincing groups that almost everything
they knew about lightning safety was wrong. Which, by the way is still
"The first big move towards a committed front was the 30-30 Rule. If
you see lightning, you start counting, if you hear thunder within 30
seconds, the lightning is closer than 10 miles away and you should be
in a safe place, and stay there for 30 minutes," Utley said.
However, that rule has been bent and misinterpreted, so people started thinking they simply had to get to a safe place if they heard thunder.
"We realized that a
lightning bolt can easily be more than 10 miles long, so it became a
better idea to go inside and count. So the 30-30 Rule, which was
widely pushed and grabbed on to by every group that needed a lightning
safety program, was fast becoming outdated and even dangerous. If you
go to almost any organizations safety web site from NOAA, FEMA, and
many private groups, you will find it is still there," he said.
Utley said the safety team tried coming up with a slogan – similar to
"stop, drop, and roll" that teaches youngsters what to do if their clothes catch fire. One lightning expert, Bill Roeder, devised, "When thunder
roars, go indoors," which struckbylightning.org copyrighted in 2003.
Utley repeats that phrase whenever he visits school groups and makes public appearances. He is a man on a mission, and I give him enormous credit for his passion and dedication.
Utley also encourages people with statistics and stories about lightning to get in touch with him through the website.
He hears from people all around the world and send out emails whenever there's new information or updated casualty data. In 2012, for instance, 212 people in the United States were struck by lightning, 28 fatally. So far this year, 16 have been killed and 191 struck.
All of us who venture into the great outdoors have been caught in storms. Sometimes there's not much you can do – such as when you're hiking above tree line or kayaking far from shore. As always, check the weather reports before heading out, and try to have a "Plan B" in place in the event of a storm.
I hope none of us winds up on Utley's website, and am happy to help spread his word.
Stay safe and remember: "When thunder
roars, go indoors,"