July 15, 2011 -- A New Jersey man followed the tragic fate of his own father 48 years ago when he was struck dead by lightning during a weekend barbecue with his family.
On Thursday, family members said 500 people from the tight-knit Hammonton, N.J. community attended the funeral to mourn the death of Stephen Rooney, 54, who was "well-known" and a "real nice guy," according to the town's Chief of Police Robert Jones.
On July 3, Rooney, and 25 members of his extended family took part in the "normal Fourth of July kind of antics," at a weekend barbecue--a 30-year family tradition at Rooney's residence at 59 Plymouth Road.
"It's a giant area with fields and fields of plants and tomatoes and blueberries," said family member Eric Neduchin. "It's pretty wide open."
As was customary, the family set up their picnic around a tree that was "two and a half, at least three stories tall" when storm clouds rolled in.
Rooney's cousin Scott Digerolamo who attended the picnic said, "A bunch of ladies and kids went inside and five of us stayed outside to smoke a cigar."
When family members implored the men to come inside the house, Rooney assured them that "lightning never strikes the same family twice."
Minutes later Rooney snuck behind the tree to light his cigar when the tree was struck by a bolt of lightning.
"Steve got knocked back and knocked over," said Digerolamo, who was also indirectly struck by the same bolt and knocked 5 feet off of his chair by the impact.
After local medical personnel attempted CPR, Rooney was flown to University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia where he died five days later on July 8.
Forty-eight years ago, the same fate befell his father.
Rooney was 6 years old when his father went fishing by himself in Fortescue, N.J.
"When he got out of the water, he started cleaning the fish with his knife," Digerolamo said. "The knife was like a conductor -- the lightning directly struck the knife."
The senior Rooney was killed immediately. Digerolamo said, "He didn't feel anything, it happened quick to him. It was very bad."
Lightning Can Strike the Same Place Twice
"Even when they would be on the golf course and it would get stormy, it's something [Rooney] always said, so it wasn't odd for him to say that [lightning never strikes the same family twice] except for the result that happened forward." Neduci said.
According to Steven Hodanish, senior meteorologist in Pueblo, Colorado at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, lightning can strike the same place twice.
"I don't know how many times the Empire State Building or Sears Tower has been hit, probably thousands of times," Hodanish said. "It's amazing, some myths just don't go away."
According to NOAA's National Weather Service, 55 victims of lightning strikes die on average in the United States each year. Hodanish said that the victims tend to be male because they are typically outside and "young men tend to be more, 'it won't happen to me' so to speak, so they won't seek safety as early as they should."
While taller structures are usually hit by lightning during a storm, Hodanish emphasized that people should move indoors during a thunderstorm or to the nearest vehicle with a metal top.
"Stay away. Don't even seek shelter near trees," he said. "It sounds simple but when thunder roars, go indoors."
Most People Not Struck Directly by Lightning
Digerolamo said of the indirect lightning strike he experienced on July 3, "It was just tremendous. It's kind of like a woman giving birth -- unless you've been through it you can't explain it."
According to Neduchin, the Rooney family picnic tree that was hit by lightning bears entry and exit wounds from the strike, which raced down the tree and through the ground, hitting and killing Rooney and injuring Digerolamo. Though lightning struck, it never rained, Neduchin said.
Dr. Paul Pepe, chairman of emergency medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas, said that most lightning victims who are only injured are not hit directly by the strike.
"If you get hit directly, it is almost uniformly fatal if a bolt actually goes through you. For people who do survive, 80 percent will have permanent injuries that usually affect their nerves or muscles," said Dr. Pepe. "It's a matter of luck here to some extent."
Digerolamo, who was standing farther from the tree than Rooney, remembers waking up in an ambulance after the lightning strike. He has to undergo two weeks of blood testing before he is medically, "in the clear," but as of yet, he has not suffered permanent injuries.
Neduchi said the Rooney family, including his wife and two daughters, are still in shock about Rooney's death. He said, "How many times have we had parties when it did rain but nobody thought about lightning or anything like that. It never even crossed anyone's mind."