The Human Lightning Rod
On this day in 1977, Roy C. Sullivan entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the first person ever to be struck by lightning seven different occasions, and live to tell the tail.
The only man in the world to be struck by lightning seven times was ex-park ranger Roy C. Sullivan, the human lightning conductor of Virginia. A single lightning strike is made up of several 100 million volts (with peak current in the order of 20,000 amps.
The first documented lightning strike of Sullivan occurred in April 1942. He was hiding from a thunderstorm in a fire lookout tower. The tower was newly built and had no lightning rod at the time; it was hit seven or eight times. Inside the tower, “fire was jumping all over the place”. Sullivan ran out and just a few feet away received what he considered to be his worst lightning strike. It burned a half-inch strip all along his right leg, hit his toe, and left a hole in his shoe.
He was hit again in July 1969. Unusually, he was hit while in his truck, driving on a mountain road—the metal body of a vehicle normally protects people in cases such as this by acting as a Faraday cage. The lightning first hit nearby trees and was deflected into the open window of the truck. The strike knocked Sullivan unconscious and burned off his eyebrows and eyelashes, and set his hair on fire. The uncontrolled truck kept moving until it stopped near a cliff edge.
In 1970, Sullivan was struck while in his front yard. The lightning hit a nearby power transformer and from there jumped to his left shoulder, searing it.
In 1972, Sullivan was working inside a ranger station in Shenandoah National Park when another strike occurred. It set his hair on fire; he tried to smother the flames with his jacket. He then rushed to the restroom, but couldn’t fit under the water tap and so used a wet towel instead. Although he never was a fearful man, after the fourth strike he began to believe that some force was trying to destroy him and he acquired a fear of death. For months, whenever he was caught in a storm while driving his truck, he would pull over and lie down on the front seat until the storm passed. He also began to believe that he would somehow attract lightning even if he stood in a crowd of people, and carried a can of water with him in case his hair was set on fire.
On August 7, 1973, while he was out on patrol in the park, Sullivan saw a storm cloud forming and drove away quickly. But the cloud, he said later, seemed to be following him. When he finally thought he had outrun it, he decided it was safe to leave his truck. Soon after, he was struck by a lightning bolt. Sullivan stated that he actually saw the bolt that hit him. The lightning set his hair on fire, moved down his left arm and left leg and knocked off his shoe. It then crossed over to his right leg just below the knee. Still conscious, Sullivan crawled to his truck and poured the can of water, which he always kept there, over his head, which was on fire.
The next strike, on June 5, 1976, injured his ankle. It was reported that he saw a cloud, thought that it was following him, tried to run away, but was struck anyway.
On Saturday morning, June 25, 1977, Sullivan was struck while fishing in a freshwater pool. The lightning hit the top of his head, set his hair on fire, traveled down, and burnt his chest and stomach. Sullivan turned to his car when something unexpected occurred — a bear approached the pond and tried to steal trout from his fishing line. Sullivan had the strength and courage to strike the bear with a tree branch. He claimed that this was the twenty-second time he hit a bear with a stick in his lifetime.
In September 1983 he died by his own hand, reportedly rejected in love.