November 29, 2009

An Amazing Lightning Story

The lightning stuck the antenna on the upper side of the car

Once in a while, I hear some amazing weather stories. Imagine being hit by lightning while driving. Instant destruction of the car's electronics, with the a window blowing out due the blast? Here is a true story shared by Judy Lew--she described it so well, I thought I would leave her own words, slightly abridged. And some pictures she shared. She sounds like the kind of person you would like to have around in an emergency! This lightning hit occurred on the 520 bridge in Seattle during commute time.

This story illustrates how safe it is to be in a car during an electrical storm, since the current will pass around you.

Her story:

On Friday November 6th 2009, I picked up my two daughters in Redmond around 5:50pm and started heading home (west-bound) on SR-520 back into Seattle at the height of rush hour in very heavy traffic. It was dark and rainy, and I was driving a 2003 VW Passat wagon. My girls and I didn’t get to the 520 bridge over Lake Washington until just after 6:15pm (and that was after merging and maneuvering around many cars just to get into the HOV lane before we got to the bridge).

The girls and I were just chit-chatting in the car when all of the sudden – BOOM! We heard a loud explosion and I saw a flash of red light outside of the corner of my eye and all of the sudden my driver side window dropped down and a rush of cold air and rain came in. I screamed (as did the girls) but I had no idea what had just happened. I then realized that the brakes were no longer working. We were moving but I couldn’t slow or stop the car. I then realized that there was something wrong with the car as I couldn’t go faster either and something smelled funny – like there was something burning.You can see where the current passed through the tire.

A blown out window...with some enhancements
by the Bellevue Fire Dept.

I immediately realized that the explosion I heard was related to what was going on with the car (yes, you would think that was obvious at this point but everything was happening faster than I could process). I then realized I needed to turn off the car and stop it as I was worried it was going to explode (the burning smell freaked me out). I immediately used the emergency break, stopped, and turned off the car. It was only at this moment that I got a chance to turn around and see if the girls were okay. Everything happened so fast. Fortunately they were both fine and surprisingly weren’t screaming though my older one looked kind of wigged out. My youngest was just confused.
I immediately called 911 while anxiously looking over my shoulder as I was worried about cars hitting us. We were stopped in the middle of rush hour traffic in heavy rain on the bridge. (For the record, no passing motorists stopped to assist us. No one!) Basically my worst nightmare on the road. The 911 operator had to ask me twice for my name as I had immediately gone into what happened. She surprisingly asked me to move off the bridge. I told her my car stopped working and I was worried about trying to start it up again for fear it would explode. She told me I had to try as it was dangerous to be stalled on the bridge. I tried again but to no avail. Given this she said she would send help.

It was only after I hung up with the operator did I notice that my front passenger window was completely blown out. It was shattered all over my front seat. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea what happened. Plus the lights in the car were flashing on and off erratically and the car horn started going off. I called my husband and told him the car was going bonkers. We were both befuddled as we had just taken the car in for a 70,000 mile tune-up earlier that week. And now the car had apparently had a catastrophic failure. What was happening?!

After what seemed like an eternity (though was really around 20 minutes), I finally saw flashing lights behind us. The tow truck arrived and soon after a fire truck. My husband called again at the same time and wondered if it was possible that lightning had struck us. He didn’t know of any other explanation. When I saw my blown out window I had actually wondered if we had been shot somehow. I hadn’t even thought about lightning but it made perfect sense as we had the worst thunderstorms the night before and tonight looked just as bad. I told the firemen this and they thought it was conceivable. They had me try to start the car again and confirmed that there was an electrical malfunction. They ended up severing the car’s battery to turn off the horn (which by this time was constantly blaring). After some more investigation, they told me that it indeed looked like lightning had struck the car and had done so through the antenna.

One of the firefighters was a woman. She and everyone else was very nice and reassuring to my girls. When everything appeared to be safe, she reached in and shook my hand and said that I should buy a lottery ticket the next day. She said the car apparently did what it was supposed to and absorbed the impact of the lightning and that we were very lucky. I couldn’t believe it myself. What are the odds of a moving car being struck by lightning?! I couldn’t find the answer online although NOAA says that the odds of being struck by lightning in general is 1 in 3000. When the firewoman walked away, I only then realized that she was the captain of the fire department (it was emblazoned on the back of her jacket).

So how did we finally get home? After the fire truck left, the WDOT tow truck lifted the car up and pulled us in it across the bridge to the first exit until we got to a flat shoulder on the exit ramp where we could safely wait for another (AAA) tow truck and ride to get us home. I was hoping the ride could be fun for the girls but unfortunately it was quite cold as the rain came blowing in through the front windows. It was 7:30pm and the girls were cold and very ready to go home. Fortunately, they did amazingly well given the circumstances and went to bed that evening very happy like nothing had even happened. We were very lucky…

The next day, the University VW dealership was quite accommodating – where we became minor celebrities (for a couple of days). The service manager and garage foreman but said everyone in the VW and Audi dealership had come by to see the car – no one had ever seen anything like it. We’ve also just confirmed with the insurance company that they are “totaling” the car due to the extensive damage to the various electrical systems….so now we’re in the market for another vehicle.

I would like to thanks Judy Lew for providing this amazing story and pictures.

Special Lecture: I will be giving a noon-time weather lecture ("Is Rainfall Getting More Extreme?") and a book signing at Elliot Bay Books, December 2 at 12 PM. Downtown in Pioneer Square.


  1. Wow. Amazing story.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for posting this story. I'm glad, of course, everyone came out o.k.

    In the 1980's and '90's I used to hike and bike in the Yellowstone / Tetons / Wind River areas of the Rockies almost every summer. Afternoon or evening lightning storms are almost a daily occurrence, it seems. I almost always had an aluminum-tube mountain bike sitting upright on top of my car while I was driving through the area.

    I remember one evening, while I was beginning my journey back home to Seattle in the early '90's, I was leaving Yellowstone via one of the northern exits of the park. I had a little VW Golf. I was aiming towards Livingstone, Bozeman or Missoula as I left the park. I can't remember. But the even lightning show was in full swing. A couple from Maine in a VW camper was driving in front of me with two steel frame mountain bikes upright on top of their vehicle. We were both driving up into the mountains and into the lightning storms.

    I was following them for some time, realizing all of the time that the chance of getting struck was pretty slim-to-none, but wondering to myself which was safer to be in: a taller vehicle with two steel lightning rods; or a shorter one with one aluminum one.

    I posed the question when I returned to some colleagues from the Boeing Lightning Lab I was working with at the time. I think my question was too general for them to be able to answer with much confidence. The potential difference between the two situations is probably too small. It's probably the type of question you have to test for repeatedly to get the answer. But they did mention that the car was probably designed to handle the situation much like what happened to this car.

    It was a moot point, it turns out. The VW camper turned off some exit at a lake before we climbed into the mountains. I kept on. Nothing exciting happened. I'm glad I didn't have to find out.

    But i always wondered from that point on whether an upright bike on top of a car could act as a lightning rod.

  3. Wow! Very lucky indeed! Thanks for sharing this story. I only know one person personally that was hit by lightening, an old landlord in Flagstaff, AZ. She was standing outside her house with her hand resting on a metal railing when a bolt of lightening blew her thumb off, she said she fainted right there on the spot. Apparently she had to have her heart shocked back into a regular rhythm again too? Crazy!

  4. I noticed the comment "Couldn’t find the answer online although NOAA says that the odds of being struck by lightning in general is 1 in 3000.".

    Aside from not having a time period or area for that probability (every second? every year? in lifetime? in WA? in the USA? in the world?).

    But the NWS has a good page on it. They estimate the 80 year lifetime odds of being struck for the average US person as 1 in 6250. That would, given the lower than average PNW lighting rate, would be lower for an average PNW person).

    The annual estimated odds are 1 in half a million (500,000) for a person in the USA

    Similar odds are quoted at UCAR though they also include this rate "Overall, a rate of 7.7 casualties per million people per 100 million flashes was found for the entire United States. (Curran 1997)".

    And perhaps more interesting from a non-casualty strike 1 in 52 strikes in CO result in an insurance claim.

    I'm not surprised no one helped her on the bridge. The odds of being struck by a car on 520 are, I suspect, a lot higher than getting hit by lightning.

  5. I don't suppose it's legally required for people to help those in distress on the road anymore (ok, I'm 24 and don't drive, so I don't know if this was ever a law). Glad everything turned out ok and those who did come were helpful!

  6. Thanks for sharing Judy. Hope you and your family don't suffer any lasting damage from this incident.

    There have been a few times I've been outdoors around lightning, and I've usually told myself that I wouldn't get hit because I wasn't the tallest thing or because I'm not a good conductor of electricity. Your story serves as an important reminder that lightning can strike anything.

  7. Cliff- how do we reach you to find out if you will do a book signing/ discussion in our community?

  8. One of our local amateur radio operators experienced a lightning strike in July, and the path following by the electrical surge is interesting. Link with photos:

  9. Im glad you are ok...but I am shocked the tow truck driver let you stay in your car while he towed you to the end of the bridge. That seems very dangerous..I wonder why he didn't let you and your girls ride in the cab of the truck??

  10. FYI regarding lightning. There are two types of lightning if I recall correctly from back in my elec eng days - positive lightning and negative lightning. The negative one is far more common (I think 95%), and it starts from above, eventually finding what should be the highest good conductor of electricity in the area. The positive one however starts forming from the ground or near the ground, upwards, and finds the closest conductor (ie. cloud) it can find. With positive lightning, it doesn't matter whether you're the lowest or highest conductor in the area, how high up you are, whether you have a lightning rod, etc. It can strike literally anywhere in a given area. In light of that, it's definitely a good idea to not hang around outside a lot during lightning storms. Of course if you're in a car, you're ok either way I suspect.

    Also, lightning is so powerful that it often dissipates sideways once it hits the object it hit. That's why it's so dangerous standing under or near a tree in a lightning storm. The sideways dissipation of that lightning is enough to kill people nearby the strike, and trees that get hit, are usually taller than most things around them.

  11. I can totally understand the frustration that nobody stopped to help, but this was 520 -- the prospect of stopping and getting out of the car on this roadway is enough to make anyone hesitate.

    I understand the tow driver's decision to let the driver and children stay in the car on this note as well.

    There's not a lot of room on that bridge.

  12. A few years back I was backpacking up to Yellow Aster Butte, near Mt. Baker, with my Cousin and a friend of his. As we were hiking a storm system developed and we watched as an electrical storm moved our way from the peak of Goat Mountain. It was eerily beautiful and stimulating. As my Cousin was commenting that the landscape was reminiscent of Gondor in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings I noticed Mt. Baker was especially vivid an dark. I was thinking "This would be Mt. Doom in Tolkien's world" when it was suddenly lit up by a wreath of lightning writhing around the peak. I exclaimed loudly in pleasure but realized there was noone there to hear me. I raced up the trail to a junction in the trail and could not find my party so I started yelling, hoping they had not gone uphill rather than down. I peered over the steep drop to the tarns of YAB to glimpse Steve and Justin making good time at the foot of the hill. When I caught up to them, they had another story:

    While I was transfixed by the lightning across the Nooksack River they were waiting for me at the high point of our trail. As they waited they heard a very loud "pop" and a boom and a tingling sensation while the air smelled "burnt". They ran like hell down the trail and it was only moments later I caught up to them.

    Now, my question is, was this technically lightning or another electrical phenomenon? They didn't report any flash of light and were not at all harmed but clearly encountered electricity.

  13. Cliff,

    What's this I hear about the possibility of snow in Seattle on Saturday?

    I know it's gonna rain on the Hawks on Sunday already! :D

  14. RCW 46.61.625
    Riding in trailers or towed vehicles.

    (1) No person or persons shall occupy any trailer while it is being moved upon a public highway, except a person occupying a proper position for steering a trailer designed to be steered from a rear-end position.

    (2) No person or persons may occupy a vehicle while it is being towed by a tow truck as defined in RCW 46.55.010.

    [1999 c 398 § 9; 1995 c 360 § 10; 1965 ex.s. c 155 § 73.]

  15. My mother's car was hit by lightning about 20-25 years ago, in the UK, while she was on the school run. Back then, of course, cars were far less wired electrically, and everything still worked after it was struck (the lightning hit the metal, not the windshield, so no glass was blown out). She pulled over into a layby for 10 mins or so while she calmed down, then just carried on with her journey.

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  17. This JUST happened to me. Almost word for word. 2 kids in the back, deafening noise, car system totally dead. I was able to coast to the shoulder - but I recognize your fear of being struck by other vehicles. 2nd scariest day of my life!!! (I was in Japan for the 9.0 earthquake...that still wins for scariest)!


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