When Indirect Lightning Strikes Your Home

The consequences of an indirect lightning strike are catastrophic.

ByABC News
July 25, 2011, 3:54 PM

July 26, 2011— -- It's not unusual for the Plymouth, Mass., Fire Department to get a call about a lightning strike. But the call that came in from Carver Road in Plymouth last weekend was a little bit different.

A woman reported being hit by lightning even though she had been sitting inside her house and the house itself wasn't hit -- she complained of paralysis in her legs and was transported to a local hospital.

"We didn't find any evidence of damage to the house ... but there were numerous strikes in the area that day," Plymouth Deputy Fire Chief Michael Young said.

When ABC News called, no one answered the phone at the house where the 911 call came from, and a message left was not returned.

Everyone knows that a direct lightning strike can result in serious injury, even death. But the catastrophic consequences of an indirect lightning strike are not as well known.

Indirect lightning is defined as lightning that strikes one place but "induces consequences remotely" said Richard Kithil of the National Lighting Safety Institute, a Denver-based group.

That's exactly the kind of strike that sent hundreds of kilovolts of electricity coursing through Scott Almeida's body last year.

Almeida was sitting in an office talking on the landline telephone at his auto repair shop in Hanover, Mass., when thunder and lightning moved into the area. Minutes later Almeida heard a loud bang and flew out of his seat.

"It went through my body, I felt a huge rush," Almeida said. "I was nauseous, I almost passed out. I had blurry vision and an accelerated heart rate."

The vision problems and sleepless nights continued for weeks, he said.

"We suspect it traveled through the building, through the 4-inch copper drain pipes," Almeida said.

Eventually the lightning made it from the copper pipes to wires in the landline telephone Almeida was holding and that's when he got hit.

"It was just so random," he said. "You never know where it's going to go."

"Random, unpredictable and arbitrary" are the hallmarks of a lightning strike, according to Kithil, who has spent years educating the public on the dangers of lightning strikes.

Kithil said statistics show that lightning is the number two storm killer in the United States, right behind floods, and it's 2,000 times more likely that indirect lightning will cause some "mischief" rather than a direct strike, Kithil said.

A relatively common occurrence is when lightning strikes a power line, gets into the electrical system and a body becomes part of the electrical current path as the current runs through the house along a telephone line or a computer wire.

A typical lightning shock delivers 300 kilovolts of electricity in just a few milliseconds. And, while most people survive, the physical consequences of an indirect lightning strike can be devastating.

Dr. Robert Riviello, a surgeon in Boston's Brigham and Women's trauma, burn and critical care unit, said he has seen a handful of patients over the years who have been victims of indirect lightning strikes and they often have cardiac and neurological issues.

"We see a range of injuries including arrhythmias," he said. "I have seen temporary paralysis in one patient several years. The electricity can run in and out of your system by way of your spinal cord…although in my patient the paralysis lasted less than a day."

Lightning strikes most often between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. And Florida is the state with the most recorded injuries and deaths from lightning.