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Benton woman survives lightning strike

July 22, 2012

Sharon Witham of Benton shows her 6-year-old Jayden Tarrants a cast on her harm to heal a fractured wrist, which she suffered during a lightning strike at her home. (Courier photo by Matt Burks)

During a thunderstorm on July 6, Benton resident Sharon Witham noticed that a canopy in her backyard was being whipped around. She feared it would blow over toward a neighbor's home, so she dashed out the door, grabbed one of the canopy's metal poles and began to "mash it down."
Witham said it then occurred to her that having metal in her hand probably wasn't a good idea.
"I had that pole in my hand and I thought, 'I better let that go,'" she said. "All of a sudden I saw light out of the corner of my eyes, I was knocked backward and I heard a bang. It sounded like dynamite exploding."
As she began picking herself off the ground, she looked for her husband, Rusty, who had been looking for a tool in the adjacent shop.
"He had his hands on his head covering his ears and he was down on the ground on his knees," Witham said. "He later told me that it felt like he was back in Vietnam. That's how loud it sounded to him."
The peculiar thing about this lightning strike is that it actually struck a tree in the family's front yard, about 100 feet away from where the couple were standing. Somehow, Witham said, the lightning bolt traveled down the tree, underground, damaged the air-conditioning unit, traveled under the fence and blew out an electric outlet next to her house, traveled to a second electrical outlet by a picnic table, then traveled toward a tree near where Sharon Witham was standing. When she later surveyed the damage, it was discovered that a brick had popped out of a walkway, a large plastic trash can had been flung into the air, and even the end of a cord to a fan lying near the trash can was fried. The fan was not plugged into any electrical outlet.
Her nephew, Tim Hogue of Benton, later found even more damage.
"A light bulb was literally blown out," he said. "All that was left was the shank. There is no evidence of the glass part of the bulb to be found. There was also monkey grass that was shot out of the ground and it landed several feet away; wire burned up inside a busted PVC pipe; pieces of wood flew off a lattice; the bottom of that plastic trash can that was shot probably 15 to 20 feet in the air looked like it was punt-kicked; that end of a fan plug that exploded wasn't even plugged in, it was just simply lying on the ground along the hot path; and that brick that popped out was to the left of my aunt and the trash can was on the right of her."
He added, "Keep in mind, that tree wasn't even directly hit. It was just somehow in the middle of the crazy pathway that the lightning charge took."
Sharon Witham realizes now that at that same moment that lightning struck, she was standing with one foot on the brick/concrete walkway and one foot on the bare ground. Somehow — and she doesn't know how to explain it — she managed to escape serious, possibly fatal, injury.
"When I got up, my husband asked me if anything was wrong and I said, 'Well, my leg and foot are kind of numb,'" Witham said. "Then my arm just started hurting, but it didn't look like anything was wrong. We went inside and about 10 minutes later all my blood veins started bulging out and I thought, 'that's weird.'"
She also said that because they smelled smoke, they decided to call the Benton Fire Department and Saline Memorial Hospital Ambulance Service. Witham said firefighters thoroughly checked the home for any signs of fire, but "didn't find anything."
"An ambulance worker came in, checked me out and asked me a lot of questions and finally told me that I needed to go on into the hospital to see if anything was broken," she said. "So I went and got X-rays. I was told I have a fracture on the top of my wrist and I have to wear a cast for at least four weeks. We also had slight hearing damage, and we are just now getting over that."
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. government agency, "Over the last 30 years (1981-2010) the U.S. has averaged 54 reported lightning fatalities per year. Only about 10 percent of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving 90 percent with various degrees of disability."
Luckily, Sharon and Rusty Witham received only a big scare and non-life-threatening injuries. However, it's an incident the couple, their neighbors and their family believe they will remember for many years. And Sharon Witham believes this incident also is one that can help others.
Witham, with characteristic lightheartedness, joked about the lightning strike, while simultaneously expressing gratitude. She's just happy that everyone is safe, including her dogs.
"The dogs were all in the house. They were the smart ones, I guess. They knew better," Witham said with a laugh. "Next time (if something is down), I'm just going to let it blow away, tear up or whatever. It's not worth getting out and getting hurt or killed. It was scary, scary."
She not only thanked the firefighters and ambulance crew, she also is thankful that her grandchildren were not at the home. Witham said they probably would have been near her at the time, as "they just always kind of follow me around."
"Everything just happened so fast," she said. "There was no way I could have turned around and escaped it because it was right there. When I saw that flash of light, I immediately thought 'that's it, I'm dead.' I am very lucky to be alive. I know that I am. And I definitely respect that lightning."
Hogue remains curious as to how lightning that struck a tree about 100 yards away could have caused so much damage. However, he also believes his aunt's unfortunate situation can be used positively for other people.
"Perhaps the large root system was an excellent conductor; which might explain the freak phenomena of what happened with the trash can, bricks, and monkey grass," Hogue said. "I hope this article can serve as a teaching tool to convince folks of the dangers of lightning."
Witham, who was actually celebrating a birthday the next day (and she politely declined to say which one), used humor in her warning to others.
"I'll tell anyone that if there is lightning anywhere around you, just get away from it because it can do some weird things like it did here. It followed the wires underground and all the way around back here," Witham said. "The next day, all my family kept telling me, 'We're so glad you're still here,' and the neighbors were all concerned. I just told everyone, 'I guess I was your delayed firecracker.'"

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