It’s the ultimate symbol of nature’s cruelly random brutality. A sudden crack and a boom as loud as a dynamite blast, and a bolt of electricity hotter than the sun and moving 400,000 mph can snatch away a human life in an instant.
But can anything be done to keep out of the path of such an unstoppable force?
Every year, lightning kills 50 to 150 people in the United States. That’s roughly on a par with the death toll from the more-dramatic and better-recognized floods and tornadoes. It’s usually more than are killed by hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires. Another 1,000 are injured.
And in northern Illinois, rarely has this force been more vicious than in recent months.
It was said that 29-year-old Jon Oliosi of Mokena had three loves: his 2-year-old daughter Olivia, the Chicago Blackhawks and fishing. By May 26, the beard he was growing to support his Hawks was so famous that it had its own Facebook page. But that Sunday, his life ended from a lightning bolt during a fishing trip to downstate Shelbyville.
Oliosi and his friends had waited out a storm that Sunday morning inside their camper. But after the weather seemed to clear, they had gone out on the Kaskaskia River, and Oliosi had landed a muskie. In the last photo ever taken of him, his bearded face can be seen smiling proudly, holding the trophy fish.
A new line of storms moved in. Oliosi and his friends packed up to leave. As they were walking down the steps from a dam, a lightning bolt “came out of nowhere and hit him,” his mother later told a Sun-Times Media reporter. Oliosi stopped breathing, and efforts to revive him failed. A friend who had been walking next to him was knocked over but unhurt.
Four days later, on May 30, 17-year-old Jennie Dizon of Downers Grove was just three days away from receiving her diploma from Lisle’s Benet Academy. Then it would be on to the University of Cincinnati. She dropped off her brother and sister at a dentist’s office, then decided to spend the time until their appointment was over by walking over to a nearby park, probably to write in her diary.
At about 5 p.m., a woman who lives near the park heard the explosion-like crack of lightning very close by. Looking out, the woman saw Dizon lying on the ground in the park. When paramedics arrived minutes later, they couldn’t restart her heart.
The might of electricity bolting from the heavens isn’t always deadly. And it does, in fact, strike twice now and then.
On April 17, as clouds gathered that would pour down enough rain to paralyze the Naperville area for the following two days, two houses in the city sustained lightning damage — two minutes and six miles apart, on the city’s south end. The first bolt shot down at 3:27 p.m., hitting a house on the 3100 block of Kingbird Lane. At 3:29, a house on the 2400 block of Thaxton Court was struck.
Late on the afternoon of June 12, another storm front moved through DuPage and southern Cook counties. At about 5:57 p.m., a lightning bolt struck a luxury home at the end of a wooded private road near Lemont. The people inside escaped without injury. But by the time firefighters could counterattack, flames had gutted the house.
As the same line of storms passed Naperville on June 12, lightning tore through the roof of the home of Fred Schultz. Schultz sat working on a computer in his basement office when, he later would tell Channel 5 News, “the bolt and the concussion were so severe that it shocked me through my hands and blew out all our equipment.”
Pieces of the roof had been torn away. No fire started, but that night the Schultz family slept in their basement, haunted by fear that the roof could cave in on them.
Richard Castro, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Romeoville, doesn’t see anything apocalyptic in this year’s relative prevalence of lightning. Simply put, when it rains, it pours — and sometimes lightning comes with the territory.
“It’s not that we didn’t have any thunderstorms last year,” Castro said. “It’s just that this year it was a lot more active, especially in May and June.”
Sometimes it seems as if any attempt to thwart the danger from the sky may be futile. The Downers Grove park where Jennie Dizon was killed was equipped with a “Thor Guard” lightning-risk prediction system — the same kind installed in Elgin’s Wing Park Golf Course after a golfer was killed there in 2006. The system is supposed to sound a horn blast when lightning strikes show up anywhere in the area.
It remains unclear whether the park warning system didn’t work, whether the teenager ignored the siren, or whether she was unable to do anything quickly enough. Perhaps she simply had not read any of the signs explaining how the system works and had no idea what the horn indicated when it went off.
But officials from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service use a catchy cautionary credo in their new safety awareness campaign: “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors So Your Fun Times Won’t End in Tragedy.” They say the key to staying safe is not to trust a thunderstorm but to get into safe shelter, even when it seems that conditions aren’t all that terrible.
“The slogan is an important reminder that if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning, even if the thunderstorm isn’t directly overhead,” said IEMA Director Jonathon Monken. “While a thunderstorm may disrupt our outdoor fun, there’s really no safe place outside when lightning is in the area.”
Castro cautioned that rain doesn’t always accompany lightning hazard.
“A lot of times the lightning strikes can occur 20 or 30 miles ahead of a thunderstorm,” he said.
During major public events in Naperville, emergency responders remain vigilant for potentially dangerous turns in the weather. If the clouds let loose during Ribfest or the Last Fling, they check to see which way the wind is blowing. Generally, a storm pummeling Aurora is a larger concern for city responders than a deluge over Lisle. Dan Nelson, coordinator for the Naperville Emergency Management Agency, said when lightning comes within six miles, crowds are dispersed and urged to seek shelter.
“We’ll look at where the storm is, which way it’s moving,” he said. “I believe lightning kills more people than any other natural force. Lightning’s obviously a concern there.”
While most victims of lightning strikes are hit when they are in an open outdoor area or engaged in activities near water, no location is completely safe.
“People can be hit by lightning in their houses if they’re taking a shower, talking on a corded phone or washing dishes,” said Nelson, who doesn’t think it’s a bad idea to avoid those activities during a bad storm.
Castro doesn’t think so either.
“Anything that conducts electricity can be hazardous,” he said. “It’s probably not something to test.”