Richard Butler was about to ask Bethany Lott to marry him last weekend when the cruelest hand of nature interrupted. They were at the top of North Carolina's Max Patch Bald, a 4,600-foot mountain on the Tennessee border.
Before the ring was out of his hand, the couple was struck by lightning. Lott, 25, was instantly killed and Butler, 30, was knocked down.
"She was probably five feet in front of me, so given the incline, she was a good bit higher than me, but it jumped to me," Butler told the Ashville, North Carolina, Citizen-Times. "I was spun 180 degrees and thrown several feet back. My legs turned to Jello, my shoes were smoking and the bottom of my feet felt like they were on fire."
Butler and his would-be fiancee braved the stormy skies and intermittent rain to take the hike she had wanted to take since they first dated. Her last words were reportedly, "'God, baby, look how beautiful it is."
Lightning is a terrifying force, killing an average of 58 Americans year and injuring many more, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colorado.
Electrical storms take more victims than do snowstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes, and for those who are injured, the lasting health effects can include memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, and weakness.
"When lightning roars, go indoors," warned Stephen Hondanish, senior meteorologist at NOAA's weather service.
Butler, who suffered third-degree burns, ignored those warnings.
"She said that's the difference between me and everyone else," said Butler, who spoke to the Citizen-Times but did not return calls from ABCNews.com. "When other people would see the rain and turn around, I go looking for sunshine and grab it when I find it."
After the lightning hit, Butler tried to revive her.
"She didn't say anything, and I turned around and she was laying a few feet away, and I crawled to her," he said. "I did CPR for probably 15 minutes and the whole time was trying her cell phone, but I couldn't get anything out."
His legs were too weak from the hit to pull her down the mountain, so he jumped in his vehicle and asked for help at the first driveway. Rescuers arrived, but it was too late.
"She asked me about a week ago if I wanted to go up there, and I said yes," he said. "She told me she would like to get married there."
"I put the ring on her finger while the EMTs were working on her," said Butler.
Lightning strikes have been on the decline since the 1990s, according to NOAA data.
The highest number of lightning strikes are in Florida. From 1959 to 2003, lightning killed 3,696 people in the United States, 425 of them in the Sunshine state. Another 2,000 have been injured in Florida during that time period, according to a 2003 summary in National Geographic magazine.
"It's a combination of people being outdoors and a lot of lightning storms," said Hodanish. "It's a perfect match."
Experts don't understand why some are killed and others are not.
"In a large group of people, one dies and the others survive," said Hodanish. "Lightning is a strange beast. It's totally unpredictable."
Just last week, Sarah Brogden of Jupiter, Florida, who was eight months pregnant, was struck by lightning and lived to tell her story.
Pregnant Woman and Baby Survive Strike
The lightning bolt hit 25 feet from where she was standing barefoot in the driveway. It traveled up the pavement and shocked her whole body while she was loading clothes into her car outside her home.
She said in a story posted by ABC's Baltimore affilitate WMAR-TV that it felt "very tingly. It hurt, but for a second though."
"I remember hearing the lightning and the thunder and being like, 'Oh my gosh,'" she said. "From my toes to my fingertips it was really bad on my feet."
Her father, Dana Haskell, was three blocks away when he got the call that paramedics were called. "It worries you a lot," he told ABCNews.com. "She goes back to the doctor tomorrow. So far so good. I thank the lord above he's looking after her."
A marine electrician, he has been indirectly hit by lightning twice before.
"Once, I was underneath a boat and it hit the fence behind the boat and caught me in the field," he said. "If felt like someone had taken a big, old baseball bat and hit you hard."
"It's not fun," he said. "It's almost indescribable, it's such a stunning smack."
A second time, he was on the tower of a marine boat putting in electricity, when the bolt struck. "I knew enough not to hold on to anything," he said. "There was a pretty good punch in that one."
Today he has short-term memory problems and doctors have found a lesion on his brain's temporal lobe that they think may be related to the lightning strikes.
Most victims are not actually struck by lightning, but are injured in its electrical field, according to Dr. Paul Pepe, chair in emergency medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas.
The severity of the injuries depend on three things: what you are wearing, what you are touching and where the bolt strikes.
"If it's a direct hit, generally it goes through you and rips everything out of you, destroying your heart tissue, lung tissue and breaking your bones," he said. "It's violent and it will do you in."
An indirect hit might cause muscles to contract or cause pain or knock the victim over, causing a secondary injury.
A lot depends on "conductivity" in the situation, according to Pepe.
Those who are barefoot on a wet surface or touching metal will be better conducters than people in rubber shoes or boots. The rubber will "ground" a person, effectively stopping the flow of electrical current.
Lightning will always strike the highest point, which is why many are injured on a golf course. A car, with its rubber tires, is a relatively safe place to sit out a thunderstorm.
Lightning Can Strike Twice, Say Experts
Victims can also suffer long-term injuries, including memory loss or more serious brain damage.
As for the "old wives tale" that "lightning never strikes twice," it is just that, said Pepe.
"People can be hit multiple times and if you go out and do things in a risky environment, you'll get hit again," he said.
"It's a relatively rare event when you are talking about millions of people," said Pepe. "But when it happens, it's very striking and dramatic and everyone remembers it."
Such was the case with Stephen McCarthy, who was struck under clear skies, throwing a football with a friend on Island Beach State Park in New Jersey in 2001. The 22-year-old McCarthy was killed instantly and his friend survived.
The storm was several miles out to sea and white cumulous clouds dotted a blue sky, according to Jim Handschuch, who was a lifeguard on the beach and administered CPR.
Burns on the body showed that lightning hit McCarthy's head and left through his left hip and he couldn't be revived, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
"It was a crisp, beautiful day and there was something mysterious about the clouds," said Handschuch, who is now 49 and principal at Lacey Township Middle School. "They were tall and really different."
"I recall sitting on the lifeguard stand and I saw two lightning bolts come from way off past the horizon," he told ABCNews.com. "There was a glow and within seconds I heard, 'Someone has been hit by lightning.'"
As for the friend, he was "knocked out or startled" by the bolt and taken to the hospital, according to Handschuch. "He was kind of in shock, knowing his friend had been hit. That is a trauma unto itself."
After the incident, when Handschuch was forced to close the beach, sunbathers argued with him.
Now, he said, "I always respect lightning."