The odds of being struck by lightning are 700,000 to 1 — but a 14-year-old Oregon boy can tell you that if you decide to walk across an open field during a thunderstorm, they get a whole lot better.
“I heard that some people are calling me ‘Miracle Boy,’ but I kinda like ‘Sparky,’ ” Austin Melton told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday from Sunriver, Ore. He looked cheerful and spoke easily about his dramatic lesson in the dangers of thunderstorms just five days after he was struck by a bolt of 50,000-degree lightning.
Austin was at a basketball game in the gymnasium of La Pine Middle School last Wednesday afternoon when a thunderstorm rolled in and knocked out power to the school. The kids ran outside to look at the storm.
“Someone said, ‘That's scary,’ and I said, ‘What's the worst that can happen? I can get struck by lightning?’ ” he recalled to reporters two days later, speaking haltingly from a wheelchair in a Portland hospital.
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So Austin decided to take a stroll across the open field outside the gym. He made it about 200 feet before he got zapped. A bolt of lightning scored a direct hit, entering his body on the right side of his head and exiting through his right ankle. His hoodie sweatshirt was shredded and scorched by the bolt, and his right sneaker melted to his foot.
Austin had to rely on others to tell him the details.
“All I remember is the lights went out in the gym and we went outside. I walked out there and after that I blacked out. I don’t remember anything,” he told Lauer.
After he was struck, classmates ran to his aid and found him twitching on the ground. They wanted to help but were afraid to touch him.
“I think they said they didn’t want to touch me because they didn’t know if I still had the electricity in my body,” he said.
Scorched but OK
On Monday, Austin showed no visible effects from his near brush with death. His long hair — which he’s growing to donate to Locks of Love — mostly covered the burns on the right side of his head, and a perforated right eardrum didn’t show. His shirt covered the burns on his chest. He also has burns on his right ankle that may require a skin graft.
But Austin’s doctors say he so far appears to have avoided the neurological damage that frequently affects the survivors of lightning strikes. “I’m not feeling too bad,” he told Lauer. “The only thing that hurts is where I had my IVs. The burns don’t hurt too bad right now. It stings a little bit, but other than that I’m not feeling it at all right now. I’ll probably start feeling it the next couple of days.”
“I just went numb,” Melton said. “I actually feel at this time that I’m very blessed. It’s hard to imagine having someone that you love so much — you get told he’s been hit by lightning. They didn’t know at first if he was going to make it or not.”
Against all odds
According to the National Weather Service, the odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are one in 700,000, and the odds of being struck during an 80-year lifetime are one in 5,000. Just one in 10 of those who are struck is killed, with most of the others sustaining some sort of damage, often neurological. Those numbers work out to around 600 strikes a year in the United States, with about 60 deaths.
A storm does not have to be directly overhead to be dangerous. The weather service says that lightning can strike up to 10 miles from the main body of a thunderstorm; if you can hear thunder, you can be struck. Lightning can also enter open windows and doors to strike people indoors.
Austin knows all that now, after his one-boy science experiment that falls under the advisory “Don’t try this at home.”
So, Lauer asked, since they say lightning never strikes twice in the same place, would Austin be venturing out in more thunderstorms?
Austin and his father grinned. “I’m trying not to go running around in lightning storms,” the boy said.
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