What I learned getting struck by lightning

Tree planters walking to work – jeremyfcohen.com

The day started out in the Stum like every other day in the Stum: rainy, cold, and miserable. In fact, the only way we would have felt any sense of impending doom would have been if it had been a nice and sunny day. But it wasn’t and so we didn’t. The Stum is the name given to an area of forest around Prince George, British Columbia, and as my friend Andrew had said, it is an area just about as lovely as it’s name.

Our 10 pack of planters had been working some muddy trenches for a few days. Trenches are these long lines of overturned dirt that fill up quickly with water and are usually a planter’s dream. Unfortunately in the context of what was to come, standing in an open field in trenches of water was not optimal.

The day itself was like any other, in that it rained. In the early afternoon, however, a storm began to roll in. I’ve planted in many storms throughout the years but something was different about this one. The thunder and lightning approached at a velocity and ferociousness that was unmatched. A storm that wanted dearly to leave its mark. A storm that when it passed overhead I remember thinking to myself: “I hope I don’t die.”

Lightning struck and I counted: “one, two, three, four…” BANG! Another strike: “one, two, three…” BANG! Another strike and I knew the storm was overhead. There were flashes in the distance and electricity in the air and yet I did not really think to stop. I looked at my feet, they were in water; I looked around and confirmed to myself that in this open field, I was competing for tallest object and winning.

And then it hit… BANG! 200 feet away from me a white, blinding light struck the ground. Before I had the chance to react the electricity ran through the ground, up my legs, up my shovel, through my body and exited from my wrists as two balls of painful light. I let out a yell and next thing I remember was opening my eyes as I lay on the ground. Then as quickly as it came in, the storm moved off.

Literally in shock, I got up and ran to the “safety” of the cache. For an inexplicable reason I was laughing the entire way. As I reached the cache, Andrew was running towards me.

“Did you just get hit by lightning“? He yelled, also laughing.

“Oh man, I did, I did,” I yelled back.

Andrew had been hit by the same bolt as I had been and had fallen backwards and passed out. After figuring out our game plan(we had no game plan), we began to hear screaming from down the block. Crouched low we began to run towards the disembodied voices in the distance. Several hundred yards away, the majority of our crew had gathered near the road in a depression. Everyone’s faces were white and some were crying.

What had happened was that before we were struck, a bolt had come down, run through the ground and ran up Julien’s shovel. At the same time, another bolt hit the back of Dani’s quad, travelled up her spine and launched her to the ground. Though in shock, we were alive. I had an irregular heartbeat for the rest of the day, Andrew had burns on his body, Dani came out OK considering and Julien lost the feeling in his hand for the rest of the day. The storm moved off and we called it a day at 2pm.

Did I learn anything from this experience? It is hard to say really. The first thing we did was drive straight to a corner store and buy lottery tickets. Sadly, none of the numbers matched even though winning the lottery seemed like the logical conclusion to getting struck by lightning. I learned a hard lesson in reality concerning planting companies in that they care only about your safety so long as it conveniences them. We understandably finished our day early and as we walked out another foreman(who is now a supervisor for this company) passed us by and called us a “bunch of pussies” for going to the truck. Sadly that attitude was endemic within the company I worked for. I learned just this year that our supervisor at the time did not believe our story. He thought we made the entire incident up to get out of work!

The reality of the situation is that I learned very little from this experience. I’m now a little frightened of lightning but I have since encountered numerous storms and have worked through all of them. To be sure, there was something special about the storm that hit us, a ferocity that I have not since seen. Yet it is rare for any planter to actually stop working during lightning. In fact, little in the way of danger stops silviculture workers from working.

I hesitate sometimes to call this experience a “close call” even though the reality was that the way in which we were struck is the way most people die. I believe that if anything, the lesson learned from this experience is to trust your gut and that as silviculture workers, we need to be OK with putting down our shovels. The macho attitude that pervades our field is silly, troublesome and dangerous. It does, however, make for good stories.

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