An Amazing Lightning Story

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The lightning stuck the antenna on the upper side of the car

Once in a while, I hear some amazing weather stories. Imagine being hit by lightning while driving. Instant destruction of the car's electronics, with the a window blowing out due the blast? Here is a true story shared by Judy Lew--she described it so well, I thought I would leave her own words, slightly abridged. And some pictures she shared. She sounds like the kind of person you would like to have around in an emergency! This lightning hit occurred on the 520 bridge in Seattle during commute time.

This story illustrates how safe it is to be in a car during an electrical storm, since the current will pass around you.

Her story:

On Friday November 6th 2009, I picked up my two daughters in Redmond around 5:50pm and started heading home (west-bound) on SR-520 back into Seattle at the height of rush hour in very heavy traffic. It was dark and rainy, and I was driving a 2003 VW Passat wagon. My girls and I didn’t get to the 520 bridge over Lake Washington until just after 6:15pm (and that was after merging and maneuvering around many cars just to get into the HOV lane before we got to the bridge).

The girls and I were just chit-chatting in the car when all of the sudden – BOOM! We heard a loud explosion and I saw a flash of red light outside of the corner of my eye and all of the sudden my driver side window dropped down and a rush of cold air and rain came in. I screamed (as did the girls) but I had no idea what had just happened. I then realized that the brakes were no longer working. We were moving but I couldn’t slow or stop the car. I then realized that there was something wrong with the car as I couldn’t go faster either and something smelled funny – like there was something burning.You can see where the current passed through the tire.

A blown out window...with some enhancements
by the Bellevue Fire Dept.

I immediately realized that the explosion I heard was related to what was going on with the car (yes, you would think that was obvious at this point but everything was happening faster than I could process). I then realized I needed to turn off the car and stop it as I was worried it was going to explode (the burning smell freaked me out). I immediately used the emergency break, stopped, and turned off the car. It was only at this moment that I got a chance to turn around and see if the girls were okay. Everything happened so fast. Fortunately they were both fine and surprisingly weren’t screaming though my older one looked kind of wigged out. My youngest was just confused.
I immediately called 911 while anxiously looking over my shoulder as I was worried about cars hitting us. We were stopped in the middle of rush hour traffic in heavy rain on the bridge. (For the record, no passing motorists stopped to assist us. No one!) Basically my worst nightmare on the road. The 911 operator had to ask me twice for my name as I had immediately gone into what happened. She surprisingly asked me to move off the bridge. I told her my car stopped working and I was worried about trying to start it up again for fear it would explode. She told me I had to try as it was dangerous to be stalled on the bridge. I tried again but to no avail. Given this she said she would send help.

It was only after I hung up with the operator did I notice that my front passenger window was completely blown out. It was shattered all over my front seat. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea what happened. Plus the lights in the car were flashing on and off erratically and the car horn started going off. I called my husband and told him the car was going bonkers. We were both befuddled as we had just taken the car in for a 70,000 mile tune-up earlier that week. And now the car had apparently had a catastrophic failure. What was happening?!

After what seemed like an eternity (though was really around 20 minutes), I finally saw flashing lights behind us. The tow truck arrived and soon after a fire truck. My husband called again at the same time and wondered if it was possible that lightning had struck us. He didn’t know of any other explanation. When I saw my blown out window I had actually wondered if we had been shot somehow. I hadn’t even thought about lightning but it made perfect sense as we had the worst thunderstorms the night before and tonight looked just as bad. I told the firemen this and they thought it was conceivable. They had me try to start the car again and confirmed that there was an electrical malfunction. They ended up severing the car’s battery to turn off the horn (which by this time was constantly blaring). After some more investigation, they told me that it indeed looked like lightning had struck the car and had done so through the antenna.

One of the firefighters was a woman. She and everyone else was very nice and reassuring to my girls. When everything appeared to be safe, she reached in and shook my hand and said that I should buy a lottery ticket the next day. She said the car apparently did what it was supposed to and absorbed the impact of the lightning and that we were very lucky. I couldn’t believe it myself. What are the odds of a moving car being struck by lightning?! I couldn’t find the answer online although NOAA says that the odds of being struck by lightning in general is 1 in 3000. When the firewoman walked away, I only then realized that she was the captain of the fire department (it was emblazoned on the back of her jacket).

So how did we finally get home? After the fire truck left, the WDOT tow truck lifted the car up and pulled us in it across the bridge to the first exit until we got to a flat shoulder on the exit ramp where we could safely wait for another (AAA) tow truck and ride to get us home. I was hoping the ride could be fun for the girls but unfortunately it was quite cold as the rain came blowing in through the front windows. It was 7:30pm and the girls were cold and very ready to go home. Fortunately, they did amazingly well given the circumstances and went to bed that evening very happy like nothing had even happened. We were very lucky…

The next day, the University VW dealership was quite accommodating – where we became minor celebrities (for a couple of days). The service manager and garage foreman but said everyone in the VW and Audi dealership had come by to see the car – no one had ever seen anything like it. We’ve also just confirmed with the insurance company that they are “totaling” the car due to the extensive damage to the various electrical systems….so now we’re in the market for another vehicle.

I would like to thanks Judy Lew for providing this amazing story and pictures.

Special Lecture: I will be giving a noon-time weather lecture ("Is Rainfall Getting More Extreme?") and a book signing at Elliot Bay Books, December 2 at 12 PM. Downtown in Pioneer Square.
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