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Lightning strike brings dangers of outdoor jobs home to Fort Myers Beach workers

July 23, 2014
By BOB PETCHER ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

A lightning strike that left one person dead and two injured - one critically - has brought the danger of summer storms home to Fort Myers Beach residents and workers.

John Heim, who for 25 years has lived on the Beach and mostly worked in the water sports industry or related fields, said he and other beach workers gathered the morning after Tuesday's strike to discuss their experiences with summer storms.

"I have never seen anything like this," he said Wednesday. "There was a huge discussion amongst us all about being so-called experts to weather. We can usually tell when storms are going to hit. But yesterday's (storm) was totally different. It came in from the north, the south, the west and the east. It looked like three systems converged on us at one time. We had never seen that before. There was no way to prepare for it."

The lightning strike happened on the beach shortly after 2 p.m. in a heavy rainstorm.

Lee County Sheriff's Office deputies were called to assist Lee County EMS and the Fort Myers Beach Fire and Rescue on the shoreline near Beach Access 33 at the 1600 block of Estero Boulevard.

According to the police report, Scott Wilcox, 41, died on site. Zac Latawiec, 14, and Chelsea Gill, 16, were both transported to a local hospital for treatment where Zac was listed in critical condition Wednesday afternoon. All three were visiting from Lehigh Acres.

Fact Box

Lightning facts and safety tips:

Thunderstorms in Florida, especially during the summer months, are frequently unpredictable. Even with the best weather reports, along with constant and accurate observations of climatic conditions, bad weather can move in very quickly.

* Florida averages more than 10 deaths and 30 injuries from lightning per year. Approximately 50 percent of the deaths and injuries occur to individuals involved in recreational activities, and nearly 40 percent of those are water-related: boating, swimming, surfing, and others. Most lightning strikes occur in the afternoon -70 percent between noon and 6 p.m.

* Watch for the development of large well-defined rising cumulus clouds. Once they reach 30,000 feet the thunderstorm is generally developing. Now is the time to head for shore.

* As the clouds become darker and more anvil-shaped, the thunderstorm is already in progress. Watch for distant lighting. Listen for distant thunder. You may hear the thunder before you can see the lightning on a bright day. Seldom will you hear thunder more than five miles from its source. That thunder was caused by lightning 25 seconds earlier. The sound of thunder travels at one mile per five seconds.


What to do if a thunderstorm happens while in a boat

Boaters are often caught in open waters in a thunderstorm. With or without a lightning protective system, it is critical to take additional safety precautions to protect the boat's passengers.

* Stay in the center of the cabin if the boat is so designed. If no enclosure (cabin) is available, stay low in the boat. Don't be a "stand-up human" lightning mast!

* Keep arms and legs in the boat. Do not dangle them in the water.

* Discontinue fishing, water skiing, scuba diving, swimming or other water activities when there is lightning or even when weather conditions look threatening. The first lightning strike can be a mile or more in front of an approaching thunderstorm cloud.

* Disconnect and do not use or touch the major electronic equipment, including the radio, throughout the duration of the storm.

* Lower, remove or tie down the radio antenna and other protruding devices if they are not part of the lightning protection system.

* To the degree possible, avoid making contact with any portion of the boat connected to the lightning protection system. Never be in contact with two components connected to the system at the same time. Example: The gear levers and spotlight handle are both connected to the system. Should you have a hand on both when lightning strikes, the possibility of electrical current passing through your body from hand to hand is great. The path of the electrical current would be directly through your heart - a very deadly path!

* It would be desirable to have individuals aboard who are competent in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid. Many individuals struck by lightning or exposed to excessive electrical current can be saved with prompt and proper artificial respiration and/or CPR. There is no danger in touching persons after they have been struck by lightning.

* If a boat has been, or is suspected of having been, struck by lightning, check out the electrical system and the compasses to insure that no damage has occurred.

SOURCE: Lee County Sheriff's Office

Town of Fort Myers Beach Vice Mayor Dan Andre said he first heard about the strike shortly after it happened from a businessperson whose store is in the area. Andre called Town Manager Don Stilwell to inform the rest of the Beach Council.

"My understanding is (the deceased) suffered cardiac arrest and two were hospitalized. One (of the hospitalized was a female that was either an older teenager or in her 20s who was pretty coherent when they carried her off in a stretcher. The other gentlemen was unconscious when they took him off on a stretcher," Andre said.

The storm came in swiftly at roughly 2:10 p.m. and was gone just over an hour later. Andre heard a report that there were 47 lightning strikes in the area during a 15-minute timeframe.

Andre does not remember a lightning fatality since moving to the Beach, but said Public Safety Committee member Al Durrett told him something similar happened roughly 15 years ago.

"This is very tragic," Andre said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families."

Heim, who currently works on the beachfront in chair rentals, was returning the company four-wheeler to Lani Kai Beach Resort when the extreme weather began. He said he could feel and hear the explosions in the sand while he was helping to put personal watercraft away.

"It was like zero visibility driving down to the (Lani) Kai and there were (lightning) bolts everywhere," he said. "As soon as we locked the shed, we heard a KA-BOOM. The strike was obviously louder and closer. Everybody that we worked with went down to the ground."

After running back to his car, Heim noticed three people lying on the sand right along the Gulf's edge, so he ran up and noticed they all were lying face down on the ground. Heim actually got to the scene roughly the same time as first responders did. An unidentified personal watercraft rental employee was beginning CPR.

Beachfront workers now realize the danger in their jobs and vow to make sure they quickly close their operations when weather is an impending issue. While there are hopes Town officials will approve some type of lightning detection system, Heim plans to implement a communication practice, such as a sequence of bullhorn blasts, that'll alert workers and beach goers when it's time to get off the beachfront and into shelter during the interim.

"We can't wait around anymore," he said.

Lightning safety to be discussed

The Town Public Safety Committee has been looking into the viability and cost of a lightning warning system to be placed on the Beach.

Beach Vice Mayor Dan Andre believes it will be looked into a little more seriously now.

"The committee has received a couple of bids on lightning detection systems so far," he said.

Back in October 2013, officials of Thor Guard, Inc., a lightning prediction and warning systems company, made a presentation at a Public Safety Committee meeting. Durrett asked the officials to speak as he is investigating lightning measures at Fish Tale Marina.

Thor Guard President Bob Dugan calls his company unique because it offers a prediction system versus a detection system. It features base systems and horns to warn when lightning is about to strike.

"Basically, what Thor Guards does is analyze the earth's micro-static field," Dugan said then. "A lightning prediction system gives you maybe 10-12 minutes advanced warning that (the area is) about to be hit by lightning. Through all those years that we've scheduled research and development, we know when certain things are going to happen. It gives people the time to seek the appropriate shelter."

Dugan explained the prediction process and stated the accuracy results. His company has installed a system on Marco Island and has systems at Southwest Florida International Airport, Naples Airport, federal law enforcement training fields and in local communities in Bonita Springs, Sanibel and many Collier County parks.

"We are better than 97 percent accurate," he said.

It was stated the Beach would require three base systems and 12 remote horns (each heard up to 700 yards away) for a cost estimate of $99,000. Durrett spoke to officials at the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District about monitoring the system. There could be a collaborated effort between Beach Fire and the Town of Fort Myers Beach in cost and maintenance as well.



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