National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Hit While Working on a Computer and on Porch


Heidi (my wife) and I are both lightning strike survivors. I am a SKYWARN spotter (NWS Pitt), CoCoRaHS observer, and WRN Ambassador in Venango County, PA. In June of 2014 there were some Doppler-indicated rotating storms nearby. I decided the best place to be observing from, in this case, was in our basement. There had been a copious quantity of rain over the past few days prior, and the ground was beyond saturated. On this day, the storms were all around us and I tuned into local radar on the PC to watch the motion and areas being hammered. C/G lightning was frequent, and pretty random. Some relatively close claps were being heard, and distant rumbles were adding to the volume. Then “it” happened.

You know those “you can see it in all four windows” lightning bolts? I was mousing on the pad of the laptop when my arm jerked. Heidi let out a yelp you could hear 100 yards away. She was standing behind me, watching the screen at the time, with her arm on my shoulder. No, it wasn’t a direct hit–but the floor was concrete, and connected to the rain-soaked ground around the house. We felt “ground current”–and with my background in electronics, I am going to guess the voltage level was at least a few thousand volts. I’m not sure exactly what it hit, or how close it was (possibly even the house or an antenna on top of it). Whatever. From our feet, through my arm, into the laptop, across the computer network, and just like that we had a fried server, dead memory modules in the laptop, the network switch toasty, and assorted other electronic/electrical devices around the house were discovered over the next few days and had to be replaced.

My elbow tingled for the rest of the day, and I had one of those "pain level 2" headaches till the next morning. Heidi described her sensations as "more power behind it than an electric fence, and every bit as startling." Fortunately for us both, there seem to be no long-term ill effects.

If that was the end of it, I would be quite happy. No. It was exactly one year later to the month, in June of 2015, and after we had replaced the server and put it in our other home about a mile up the road. It was raining the day I and our technician were doing backups and some fine-tuning to that server. A thunderstorm moved in. This time he and I (and a friend who was on the porch) were introduced to either a streamer, or a side splash. (My guess is an upward moving streamer.)

Well, the main bolt hit dead-center of the road about 100 feet from us. Our friend was in the doorway to the porch at the time of the strike, and somehow ended up in the living room post-bolt. (Fast feet? Pushed back in? No one knows for sure.) However, I and the computer tech were at the server when we heard a sound and saw a flash INSIDE the home. The sound was a sharp crack– like taking two pieces of flat wood and slapping them together. It wasn’t a concussion like the main bolt–but more like an intense Van De Graff generator arc that came right through the floor past us. Incredibly, it jumped straight into the cable modem on its way up, frying it and the SECOND server! Yep, two high-end, server-class computers were down to lightning in just a year!

Obviously, the adage about being indoors is comforting to me only in that of these two very near misses, they were indeed MISSES of the main strikes. Had I been outside in EITHER case, I very well might not be a WRN Ambassador today to describe them. Ground current kills too, and either a side splash or a streamer can likewise drop you in your tracks. The streamer in the home couldn’t have missed Tom or I by more than 5 feet–but it did miss us both, instead choosing to knock Windows Server 2012 (R2), and most of the gadgetry in the box, for a loop.

When thunder roars, go indoors (and don’t touch a laptop, have your feet on a concrete floor, use coat-hanger wire out the window for better cell phone reception, etc.).