Colorado and Wyoming rank at the top of the list for lightning-strike fatalities in the United States. It’s scary stuff. But dying from a bolt of electricity may not be nearly as frightening as surviving one.
Back from the Brink
Struck on: July 17, 2006 | Marble, Colorado
Brock Neville was 15 years old the day a lightning bolt stopped his heart. It was July 17, 2006: He remembers hiking into the Lead King Basin near Marble, Colorado, with his aunt, uncle, and the Wooldridges, a family of friendly Denverites they’d met earlier that week. He recalls snapping photos of columbine-choked meadows as he went, and remembers the sudden deluge at 12,000 feet that forced him under a tree for cover. He knows he leaned against the trunk as he pulled on a rain shell. But after that, nothing. His memory goes blank.
Neville’s aunt and uncle filled him in on the rest a few days later. A Kansas native, Neville didn’t know that lightning can travel from a treetop into a nearby human body—which is exactly what happened when the storm’s first flash struck the tree he was leaning on, flowing into him through his right hand. The force of the strike knocked everyone in the group to the ground and temporarily paralyzed his uncle, Chad Mohr, from the waist down. But only Neville’s heart skittered to a stop.
Charlie Wooldridge remembered CPR from his Boy Scout days. The Denver artist rushed to Neville’s side and pumped life back into him for 20 minutes, until his pulse finally stabilized. After Wooldridge and his family left to get help, Neville’s uncle saved his life a second time, 30 minutes later, by forcing the pooling blood and fluid out of Neville’s lungs using the Heimlich maneuver.
“The first thing I remember is seeing my mom and dad crying their eyes out in the hospital,” Neville says. “The doctors didn’t think I would make it.” He was in bad shape: Besides the damage to his heart and lungs, the lightning had ruptured Neville’s right eardrum, burned his right retina, and left him covered in chicken pox–like skin burns. “I had a watch on my right arm, and it burned a perfect watch shape into my wrist,” he says.
After three days in Glenwood Springs’ Valley View Hospital, Neville’s doctors let him go home. “But it was three months before I could get up and do anything,” he says. “It was a struggle for me to walk 100 feet to the mailbox. I’d come back and be so exhausted I’d have to sleep the rest of the day. It felt like the worst case of mono ever.”
But Neville, now 21 and a senior agronomy major at Kansas State University, was lucky: After about six months, he made a near-complete recovery. Of course, some effects do persist. Since the strike, he’s been allergic to metal; jewelry or a watch against his skin makes him swell and itch. Still, he’s not complaining. “It’s a miracle that I’m still here,” he says.
His experience with the raw force of lightning initially made him fear thunderstorms. A few years of distance from the incident has given him a new perspective. In fact, he’s become downright obsessed with the type of weather that almost killed him. “I’m completely in love with storms now,” Neville says. “I’m often outside, taking pictures of lightning. It’s neat to look at that phenomenon and know that I survived it.”
Research | Local Expertise
Colorado’s epicenter for lightning Information
For 21 years, the Lightning Data Center at St. Anthony Hospital has worked to demystify the injuries and experiences of lightning-strike victims. Comprised of doctors, meteorologists, and even a lightning photographer, this interdisciplinary group gets together monthly to discuss case studies and meet with strike survivors. For more information on the center, email Ken Langford, president of the Lightning Data Center, at email@example.com.