Fiancee Killed by Lightning During Surprise Wedding Proposal

North Carolina couple hit by lightning when man plans surprise engagement.

ByABC News
June 8, 2010, 4:51 PM

June 9, 2010 -- 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 "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.