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Lightning strike injures 30 at reunion


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Lightning strike injures 30 at reunion

By Karen Roebuck


Monday, July 18, 2005

When Dan Rudolph regained consciousness after being struck by lightning at a family reunion Saturday, his legs were numb, people were screaming and injured relatives lay around him.

Many were convinced some of about 30 people thrown to the ground when lightning slammed into the outdoor gathering in Venango County were dead. But they began moving, or at least talking, and only David Rogan, 11, remained unconscious and was in critical condition Sunday at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"It was a frightening thing when it happened," Rudolph, 43, said yesterday. "We thought people were dead -- just laying there."

More than 100 people were on the Bell family farm in Sugarcreek Borough when lightning struck with a flash and loud boom.

"The reports we're hearing is that the lightning might have hit a tree and then branched off and hit some people," said Sugarcreek Patrolman Ryan Ashbaugh.

In Mercer County, a woman and child also were struck by lightning Saturday while boating on Shenango Valley Lake in Clark, emergency dispatchers reported. Their injuries were not believed to be serious, but no other details were available yesterday, authorities said.

In Sugarcreek, it had been raining on and off for about half an hour at the reunion, and relatives took brief refuge beneath pine trees, Rudolph said. The weather seemed to be clearing so the family continued its children's talent show during the 10th annual reunion of his wife's family.

Some in the audience backed their lawn chairs beneath the branches of pine trees.

Someone mentioned seeing a flash of lightning across the field and, less than 10 seconds later, another flash struck the party, Rudolph said.

"There was so much mass confusion, and so many people got hit," said Betsy Cochran, 43, who was siting in a lawn chair next to her daughter Sarah beneath branches when they were jolted forward.

"I initially felt it on top of my head... .You can't put that into words -- sheer fear. For a couple seconds, I thought, 'I'm not going to be here,'" she said.

Rudolph's wife, Diana, 43, had been holding a microphone when the lightning hit and was lying about 20 feet away from him when he awoke. "I tried running to my wife, but I couldn't. I just fell to the ground," he said.

Nearby, relatives performed CPR on Rogan until emergency workers came; his pulse had restarted before he was put on a medical helicopter, Rudolph said. He was in critical condition yesterday in the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, hospital spokesman Dean Walters said.

Rudolph said some emergency workers told family members lightning had entered the boy's head and exited his hip.

Two others, Ann Bell, 53, and Sarah Cochran, 21, who is pregnant, were taken by medical helicopter to Pittsburgh hospitals and were released yesterday, said Rudolph and Cochran.

Bell, of New Castle, "had a necklace around her neck. I guess it was burnt right into her skin," Rudolph said. The next day, a charred burn encircled her neck where it had been, said Betsy Cochran, of Sugarcreek.

Cochran's daughter became violently ill and could not stop vomiting following the lightning strike and was taken by medical helicopter to Mercy Hospital, Uptown, she said.

Rudolph's granddaughter, Destiny McCracken, 3, was admitted to a local hospital and an electrocardiogram showed stress around her heart, he said. She also was released yesterday and is fine, he said.

Twenty people were treated at UPMC-Northwest, most for "minor burns and tingling sensations throughout their body," and released, Ashbaugh said. Cochran said many people with minor injuries decided not to go to hospitals.

The burns resemble heat rashes, Cochran said.

"On some people, it actually looks like a little design. I do have a little (4-year-old) niece, and it was on her belly and it looked like a snowflake," she said.

Lightning kills about 100 people a year in the United States, according to the National Weather Service.

Pennsylvania ranked third in the nation for the most lightning injuries and ninth for the most fatalities between 1950 and 1995, the most recent data available, said Rich Kane, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Moon, which covers 36 counties in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Most often, lightning travels from cloud to cloud, but about a third strike cloud to ground, Kane said.

Pennsylvania averages about 250,000 cloud-to-ground strikes each year, with 73 percent between June and August, Kane said. Only 10 percent of the strikes that injure people involve two or more victims, he said.

Rudolph, who was treated at a hospital and released Saturday, and his brother-in-law had difficulty walking yesterday because their feet were so sore, he said.

"(The doctors) said the nerves were all riled up and it would take about three days to calm down," he said. His brother-in-law had been sitting in a chair with his feet resting on a motorcycle when lightning struck. "It actually blew his work boots up and singed his legs," Rudolph said.

Cochran, 43, said she, like many of those hit, still felt sore and stiff all over yesterday. Her right heel was injured. "It felt like somebody stretched it way out from the bone and snapped it back like a rubberband," she said.

The reunion was the last to be held at her mother's farm, since she plans to sell it, said Cochran, who lives across the street.The nine surviving of Bell's 10 children will rotate hosting duties, she said.

Rudolph and Cochran are thankful more relatives weren't more seriously injured.

"We are 100 percent giving the credit to God our Father," Cochran said. "A lot more of us could have been hurt; a lot of us could have been killed."

Karen Roebuck can be reached at kroebuck@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7939.

Images and text copyright © 2004 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.


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