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Men live to tell tale of lightning strike

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Colton Connelly, in tent, Ian Richmond, center, and Austinite Joshua White camp near Mount Whitney in California shortly after their tent was struck by lightning Aug. 14.

An Austin man and two companions survived a lightning strike that scorched the poles of their tent and left smoke wisping from their mouths.

Joshua White, 32, of Austin, his brother Colton Connelly, 23, and friend Ian Richmond, 26, both of San Antonio, were backpacking along the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Mountains of California on Aug. 14 when a storm blew in.

The three men were making camp at Guitar Lake, near Mount Whitney, which they planned to summit the next day, when it started to rain lightly, said White, who works at REI in the Gateway Shopping Center.

As they prepared lunch in the vestibule of one of the tents, the rain began to pick up. Soon, driving rain and hail were pelting the tent. The thunder grew louder until they knew the storm was right on top of them.

"I remember laying down in my tent and looking up," White said. "Then I saw just the most intense bright light you could ever conceive of and immediately heard thunder, not like you typically hear, but more like an explosion."

Lightning struck the tent, sending a current through the metal poles, which all three men were touching.

"It was excruciating. It was the worst pain I've ever felt — inconceivable pain," White said. "A couple seconds later, it was over. It was like every nerve ending in my body was firing at once."

Then he felt as if he were on fire.

"I was like Ricky Bobby in ‘Talladega Nights,' screaming, ‘I'm on fire, I'm on fire! Put me out!' " White said.

He ripped off his clothes and realized he wasn't on fire. But the inside of the tent was smoking, and smoke was rising off his body and out of the mouths of all three backpackers.

The group, afraid they would be hit again, piled on top of one another in the center of the tent, away from the poles, to ride out the storm. Within an hour, the storm had passed.

Other campers in the area came and checked on them. "No one could believe we were alive," White said.

He suffered a 3-inch burn on his shoulder but no other lingering injuries.

"It felt like being hit by a Mack truck going 1,000 miles per hour," he said. "It was unreal. I feel like we got a second chance."

The next morning, they hiked to the summit of Mount Whitney as planned, then walked 11 miles down 7,000 feet of elevation to finish their two-week trip.

"We were ready to be off that mountain," White said.

At least 24 people have died in the United States this year after being struck by lightning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those who survive can suffer from long-term symptoms, including memory loss, sleep disorders, chronic pain, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, fatigue and weakness.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at 445-3994; Twitter: @FitCityLeBlanc