Update - Lightning vs. home appliances

Some time ago we had a thread discussing whether one could really be electrocuted via lightning through a phone line, water pipe, etc. We came to the conclusion that, while possible, no one could verify a real life instance where someone was killed or seriously injured in this manner. I just heard on the radio news (WSB-AM) that yesterday a woman in Atlanta was struck by lightning though her computer and was hospitalized for her injuries. I’ll post more info when/if I can find it.

Carry on.

I sure can verify a case of phone lightning electrocution. About ten years ago, a woman making a pay phone call in the Bronx or Queens (I think she was near a park) got zapped and died. It made the news like crazy.

The woman in question was interviewed in the TV news last night, apparently no worse for wear. Only sketchy details were provided (imagine that - sketchy TV reporting!), but apparently she was typing away when lightning traveled through her phone or electric line and gave her quite a shock.

There you have it kiddies, Mama was right. Hang up the phone and unplug the appliances when lightning is near.

Although she wasn’t injured at all…just a bit ‘shocked’ (pun intended :)).

Story goes like this…

My mom’s in the kitchen talking to my grandma and the rest of the family is watching tv in another room. We hear a loud shout and the phone clattering to the floor. We come running to see what’s up and my mom says she just got a good shock from the phone. Nothing damaging…just surprising. We all think mom’s just being wierd (easy to believe when you’re a teenager) and leave it at that.

A few days later at breakfast my sister asks if I had been climbing the tree just behind our house because there is now a huge (maybe 4 foot long) gash in it. I say that I hadn’t (which was true in this case) but figure I’m dead meat anyway. Being the only person capable of climbing a tree plus I had a penchant for doing. Add to that the fact that I generally got blamed for everything anyway (usually justifiably but not always) and I knew I was headed for an ass-kicking.

The tree in question was, in fact, two flimsy but tall trees bolted to each other by a sturdy steel cable so they counterbalanced (they both leaned at an angle away from the other one…the cable helped ensure one wouldn’t fall on our house – make a ‘V’ with your fingers with a string tied between your knuckles and you’ll get the idea).

My dad, who is thouroughly mechanically retarded, actually figures it all out. The gash in the tree ran down to the cable and stopped. Remembering my mom’s incident of a day or two earlier he speculates that the lightning struck the tree, ran to the cable, arced to the metal balcony about 2 feet away and discharged on the house. By the time the lightning was done doing all this there wasn’t much juice left to do much more than give my mom a little zap.

I’ll tell ya, the whole story might be completely wrong but it meant I was off the hook for damaging our tree so I went with it. Besides, it did seem to look like that’s what happened.

Sorry for the bad grammar in the post above.

I was re-writing a bit and hit submit by accident.

I make lots of mistakes writing on this board but that one is too ugly for me to let go without an apology…

Dateline: Southern Ontario, Canada, May 12/2000

A major storm moved in which covered an area from north Lake Huron to Kentucky. We got hit bad. Many people we spoke to called it the storm of a lifetime (although we are having a number of them in the area this year).

It had been raining all day, and my wife and I were on our way home from work at about 9PM. There was little rain at the time and the wind was whipping about violently. Flashes of distant lightning and rumbles of thunder occured frequently. By the time we got home at about 9:30, the rain had rolled in for the night and the lightning was spectacular. I asked if she thought we would lose power that night, to which she concurred.

We were home for about 10 minutes before the power blew. We went about looking for candles and flashlights, which we needed in the basement, but not upstairs. The lightning was frequent enough (maybe 5 secs between flashes) that we were not completely lost in the darkness. We needed to check the sump…it was full…over full…overflowing…flooding.

We ended up with a mere 2" of water across the 1600sq.ft. of basement. When the power came back on (about 1-1/2 hour later), the fuse for the sump pump blew. I asked my wife to hold the pump (out of the water) while I replaced the fuse. POOF…

“I’ve been shocked…” came a cry from the cellar. We suspect it had something to do with her standing in 2" of water and holding this pump. She felt the electricity flow up both her arms and down through her feet. Other than that(!), she was unharmed.

We plugged it into another outlet which worked and started draining the water.

My father came to our house and was helping us mop up at 12AM. I was standing in the cellar with him (in the water) and I was holding on to the pump with my right hand. I had been holding the pump for about 10 minutes so the motor was above the water level.

ZAP/CRA-OUCH!-SH!! A charge jumps into my hand and up my arm.

“Ow!” I say immediately AFTER a huge thunder crash. We can see no light from outside the cellar so my dad asks, “What?”.

“Did you hear that thunder?”


“I just got struck by lightning.”

He looked at me disbelievingly. The pump continues to whir away.

It was not as bad as household current, as my wife will surely attest. Despite the flooded basement, we were very lucky that day.
Bottom Line: we don’t know what the lightning hit, and whether it came through the power lines or through the ground water, but I got hit through a household appliance.

I was about 12, and me and 4 friends were on a covered dock on a small lake. The dock had a nice roof on it and a railing around the edge with benches built into the railing. We were out at 10PM watching an incredible storm from the dry and safe dock.


All 5 of us were on the floor of the dock, including the one who was sitting in a lounge chair. The power went out to the surrounding township.

Of course our reaction, being 12, was “coool…”


You FORGOT about that? Man, you must lead one exciting life.

This is OT but an interesting aside…

I read (or watched) somewhere that 9 out of 10 people struck by lightning are male. The scientists who dug up that number had no real explanation for the disparity but speculated that it’s due to men being stupid.

Basically their theory states that men walk outside to watch the cool storm while women are generally smart enough to get out of the storm’s way and take appropriate cover.

Cantara’s post would seem to support that theory ;).

That 9 out of 10 bit is real though. Kinda wierd huh?

Check this out.

Wasn’t going to reply because I wasn’t personally hit, but after reading that one, could not resist!

My house was hit by lightning last year - I was out, but my two dogs were in & were totally unharmed (although now slightly nervous about thunderstorms for some reason!)

It hit a powerline going from the house to the shed - and split it, ran inside along it & since our fuses were metal rather than the faster trip switch type, went on to destroy a hi-fi, portable tv, pc sound card (& modem, but it may well have hit the phone line too there - it was still plugged in), radio alarm clock. It also melted holes in a heat-reflective blind that has a metal mesh inside it & left tiny pieces of white powder around the house (we think all the wiring may havejumped/vibrated due to the rapid change in current/magnetic field from the strike - this can physically move items & this may have shaken small fragments of paint/plaster loose).
It took a long time to replace the modem as so many had been blown in the town by that storm that the shops were all out of them.
But if I had been using the pc at the time, I might well have been a better route to ground for the current than the wooden desk it stands on & might have got zapped.
Oddly enough, other things that were also plugged in were not damaged, even another tv (& I used to unplug them faithfully at night in case they started a fire, but they were all plugged in while I was out, not very logical).
Nothing has happened recently like the ball episodes, but I did turn the tv on a week or two ago using a remote with no batteries in it (not just flat batteries, they had fallen out & I pressed the channel button as I knelt down to pick them up & it still switched - maybe there is a capacitor in there??)

gee, that doesn’t really sound like a lightning strike, sounds more like a transient electrical short to me.

There’s a classic story about this I read in an electronics book. A hospital patient is hooked up to a grounded heart monitor. He happens to have his arm lying on the metal rail of his bed, which is accidentally grounded, since the grounded casing of the monitor is touching the rail. Somewhere else on the floor, a janitor is using a vacuum in a 3 prong circuit, but the vacuum has a 2-prong plug. The janitor vacuums up a penny, which lodges in the motor, creating a short circuit which startles the janitor but electrocutes the patient. The penny has completed the circuit and made a new ground path for the wall voltage, one that passes through the patient…

Don’t scoff, I know that 3 guys were seriously electrocuted in the local university physics lab, they were doing a high-voltage electrical experiment and leaning against the metal table when a janitor ran over a penny with his vacuum. Two of them died.

Geeez! Who knew pennies could be so damn life-threatening? Maybe they should carry warnings.

I was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in DC two summers ago when that girl was struck by lightning. I was about 200’ from her when it happened and while I saw the bolt out of the corner of my eye, I will never forget the sound. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.

So, those who’ve had their houses hit, could you notice it by the sound?

Could somebody please explain to me how Chas.E’s story is even possible? I don’t doubt that a couple of physicists were electrocuted in a high-voltage experiment, but what the heck does the janitor vacuuming up a penny have to do with anything? That, in itself, wouldn’t complete any circuit which included the physicists.

I’m looking for the book with the details, but its somewhere buried in a pile of long forgotten textbooks from classes I didn’t do to well in. There is a good reason why I didn’t go for that EE degree.

I seem to recall the electrocution has something to do with the cheater plug, the motor grabs the penny and takes one of the voltage lines down to ground. I think you just need to make the wall-plate ground a different potential than the floor and a new ground route is created. I’ll try to find out the real story.

Anyway, getting zapped is no fun, as I can attest from personal experience. I once got hit with a 75,000 volt charge, fortunately it was from a lab demonstration and very low amperage, but it was sufficient to knock me out for a few minutes. A blue bolt of lightning coming out of your fingertip is not a pleasant thing. THAT’s why I didn’t go for that EE degree!

Could someone please explain to ME what’s going on with these lab experiments?

Chas.E has two different stories going at the same time.

The first a “classic” he read about in a book, which he can’t find. A janitor vacuums up a penny into the ‘motor’ and electocutes a heart monitor patient in the hospital.

The second story is about three guys in a local physics lab being “seriously electocuted” in a lab when a janitor vacuumed up a penny(hey!Two of them even died.)

Moral: Avoid janitors as if they were a bolt of lightning.