Struck by lightning - and alive to tell the tale

A bright white flash. A deafening boom. Then shock and pain and lots of yelling.

That's how 18-year-old Alex Smith remembers the moment Saturday when he and a crew of firefighters were struck by lightning, high on a ridge in the Yadkin Valley wilderness.

“It was weird, like everyone was moving in slow motion,” Smith said. “I think we all were in shock at first. Then everyone started yelling for help.”

Smith, a firefighter with the Gamewell Volunteer Fire Department, was on a strike force sent out Saturday to tackle a four-acre forest fire burning in the foothills near Buffalo Cove Road in northern Caldwell County. N.C. Forest Service officials said the fire was probably started by lightning Friday.

Smith and some two dozen firefighters – including several members of BRIDGE, a special program that trains nonviolent inmates to fight fires – patrolled the borders of the containment area, making sure the fire did not spread. It took an hour to hike into the site, and then they fought the fire for about five hours. They took a break about 4:30 p.m.

Smith sat on the ground, while others stood around him. The sky above was blue, but dark clouds hovered in the distance.

“Then the next thing I knew I was knocked off the ground and back about five or 10 feet and there was the loudest ‘boom' I'd ever heard in my life,” he said.

Lightning struck the ground nearby and raced to where the firefighters were standing. While many were shocked, only eight were injured enough to be hospitalized. Crew members used all-terrain vehicles to get them down, out of the foothills.

Smith said the pain from the strike was intense. The burning sensation caused the muscles in his legs to seize up.

Steve Clark, 29, was standing near Smith when the lightning struck and electricity plowed through the ground, stretching in several directions. He said he was shocked, but was relatively unharmed.

“I have no idea why it missed me,” he said. “You could see, on the ground, the path of the lightning. It traveled straight to where we were.”

On Sunday, all of the firefighters were doing well. Seven remained hospitalized for observation.

Most of them suffered burns to their feet and legs and were experiencing some soreness and tingling in their joints.

Smith had some minor burns that trekked up his legs in a spider web fashion. Another firefighter, Kenneth Robbins, still had black marks on his feet.

“You can see where it went in, right through my leather boots,” he said.

Robbins, 40, is the assistant ranger for Caldwell County and was in charge of the injured crew Saturday. An experienced member of the Forest Service, Robbins has fought many forest fires and has never had such an experience before.

“I've never even heard of something like that,” he said. “I'd say we were all pretty lucky.”