So, here is a fact you probably already know: The chances of getting struck by lightning are extremely rare, about 1 in 200,000 – or 0.000002%. Despite these extremely low chances, Roy Sullivan, a park ranger in Shenandoah Nation Park in Virginia, got struck by lightning. The crazy part isn’t that he got hit by lightning once; Sullivan was struck a total of SEVEN times throughout his lifetime.
Currently, Roy Sullivan holds the world record for getting hit by lightning more than any other human in history. He could be considered the luckiest man ever or the unluckiest man ever, depending on how you look at it. This series of unfortunate strikes harmed Sullivan physically, ruined him mentally, and landed him the nickname “The Human Lightning Rod.”
The Human Lightning Rod
Statistically speaking, Sullivan’s job as a park ranger naturally makes him significantly more exposed to storms than your average Joe, meaning lightning strikes are kind of a work-related hazard. Along with that, Virginia has a pretty high lightning range with approximately thirty-five to forty-five thunderstorm days each year.
But even with all those factors considered, getting hit once is rare, let alone seven times! Sullivan’s first encounter with a lightning bolt wasn’t documented, but all six strikes after that were recorded by the superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, R. Taylor Hoskins.
His First Lightning Encounter
Details of Roy Sullivan’s first encounter with lightning are a little iffy, but supposedly it happened during his childhood. He was helping his father cut wheat in the fields when a lightning bolt hit the scythe he was holding. Luckily, young Roy was unharmed.
Little did he know, this wouldn’t be his last happenstance with lightning. At the time, he wasn’t scared of thunder and knew lightning strikes were a rare occurrence. He would never have thought he would one day be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the man who was struck by lightning more than anyone.
The First Strike: April 1942
There was a pretty big thunderstorm, and Sullivan decided to take refuge in a recently built fire lookout tower. The building, which didn’t include a lightning rod, had already been hit a few times, so Sullivan decided to leave, worried he was putting himself in danger.
As fate would have it, as soon as he got out of the tower, the lightning bolt struck him. The hit left him with burns covering his body, knocked off a big toenail, a bloody mess, and a hole in the sole of his shoe. Sullivan still looks back at this as his worst lightning strike experience.
The Second Strike: July 1969
Now, fast forward 27 years to July 1969. Sullivan was on duty once again; this time, he was driving on a mountain road when lightning struck a tree nearby. His window was open, and the bolt was redirected to another tree across the road at the exact moment he was driving by. It burnt off most of his hair and left him unconscious.
The truck continued moving, but thank God, it stopped at the end of the cliff. This event was later recreated in the 2008 movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Mr. Daws often claims that he was struck seven times as a child.
The Third Strike: July 1970
A year later, Sullivan was hanging out in the garden of his home, minding his own business. I mean, what are the chances he’s going to get hit again? As it turns out, a lightning bolt struck a power transformer nearby and then bounced back toward him.
This was the least severe of Sullivan’s lightning experiences. He was knocked over and left with slight burns on his left shoulder. Other than the seared shoulder, Sullivan was fine. He truly got off lucky, especially after his previous lightning strike injuries.
The Fourth Strike: Spring 1972
Sullivan’s fourth lightning strike was a strange one, and not only because he was hit yet again. The weirdest part about this one was that it took place indoors. He was at the ranger station, and some gentle rain was falling outside. Suddenly, Sullivan heard a loud noise:
A lightning bolt shot through the window, entered the building and set Sullivan’s hair on fire. He remembers the flames on top of his head being a few inches tall. He immediately ran into the bathroom and thankfully managed to put the fire out using paper towels.
He Believed He Was Cursed
As you might have guessed, this was a terrifying experience. Sure, he was kind of used to getting struck by lightning at this point, but he wasn’t exactly expecting it… especially since he was inside. Also, his head was on fire.
From this moment on, Sullivan became convinced that some kind of unnatural force wastrying to kill him, which led him to develop an extreme fear of death. He was always extra careful. If he got caught in the rain while driving, he would pull over and lie on the front seat until the storm stopped. He also always carried water on him in case he were to catch on fire again.
The Fourth Strike: August 1973
And catch fire again he did. This guy really couldn’t catch a break. He was just innocently driving through the park when he noticed storm clouds in the distance. Thanks to his lightning trauma, he turned around and went in the opposite direction. However, the clouds followed him.
As soon as Sullivan thought he lost the clouds, he got out of his car and, once again, was struck by lightning. For the first time in his various lightning strike experiences, Sullivan caught a glimpse of the lightning bolt coming at him. His shoes were knocked off, and he suffered burns on his body. He was still conscious and crawled back to the truck to get his water bottle and put out the fire on his head another time. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.
The Sixth Strike: June 1976
Sullivan was almost three years lightning strike free, until one day in June 1976. This time, Sullivan was walking down the Sawmill Shelter Trail when he got hit – just a mile from where he was struck four years prior. At this point, Roy Sullivan had had enough.
This was the last straw. After 36 years of service, he quit his job and moved to Dooms, Virginia with his wife, Pat. He was so paranoid (understandably so) that he equipped various trees around the home with lightning rods going seven feet into the ground. Unfortunately, his days being zapped by lightning weren’t over yet.
The Seventh Strike: June 1977
In June 1977, the constantly worried Sullivan decided to get out and went fishing for trout. Suddenly, he “smelled sulfur” and felt the hairs on his arm stiffen. At that very moment, you guessed it, a lightning bolt struck him on his head, setting his hair on fire again.
This last strike was the most devastating for poor Sullivan. He suffered burns on his chest and in his digestive tract and stomach. If that wasn’t enough, he also lost all hearing in one ear. After spending so much time avoiding something most of us don’t even think about, he ends up getting zapped again.
His Bear Attack
Believe it or not, things quickly got even worse. As he was recovering from the shock, a bear went after the trout he caught and attacked Sullivan. A lightning strike and a bear attack – sounds like an eventful day. Somehow Sullivan found the courage to fight off the bear.
He hit it in the face with a tree branch and drove it away successfully. Interestingly, in addition to his string of lightning strikes, Sullivan also had a long history of bear attacks because of his work as a ranger. Luckily, he had the skills to fight it off.
Bonus Strike: Sullivan’s Wife
Reportedly, Sullivan wasn’t the only one in his family struck by lightning; this astronomically rare event happened to his wife as well. She was hanging up clothes in the backyard with her husband when lightning hit her. Despite standing right next to her, Sullivan got away unscathed.
Wow, getting struck by lightning seven times is shocking enough. But in this particular story, it’s more surprising that the lightning bolt didn’t hit Roy Sullivan after his history with lightning strikes. Fortunately, his wife made a full recovery and only suffered this rare experience one time.
His Silent Suffering
Sullivan dealt with loneliness and sadness as he developed a fear of being struck again. To most people, it’s an irrational fear that’s difficult to relate to. At the same time, those who were close with Sullivan would avoid him, worrying they would get zapped with him – especially during the rainy season.
On one particular occasion, he was reportedly walking with the Chief Park Ranger when they heard a thunderstorm in the distance. Just a possible storm approaching was enough for the Chief to turn to Sullivan and say, “Well, I’ll see you later.”
Not Worth the Risk
As rude as this cold treatment was, locals were still steering clear of Sullivan. A single lightning bolt can reach 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit – which is approximately the same temperature as the sun’s surface. The intense heat can burn tissue, cause lung damage, and even painfully expand the chest. The point is, even though it’s rare, it’s not fun.
According to the National Weather Service storm data, about 10% of people struck by lightning die, and 90% are left with differing degrees of disabilities. Even though he was struck seven times, Sullivan was remarkably lucky. In addition to surviving his seven strikes, he never needed to be taken to an emergency room.
What Doesn’t Kill you, Doesn’t Always Make You Stronger
Unfortunately, what didn’t kill Sullivan didn’t exactly make him stronger either. He was found dead in his bed on the morning of September 28, 1983. Tragically, he shot himself with a shotgun, but there is still a lot of controversy surrounding his death.
Some say the reason he took his life was due to unrequited love; others speculate that his wife Pat killed him. But it’s generally believed that Roy Sullivan was just sick and tired of looking over his shoulders and being terrified of storm clouds. When he died, Sullivan was 71 years old. His body remains in Edgewood Cemetery, Augusta County, Virginia; his tombstone says: “We loved you, but God loved you more.”
Another Unfortunate Man
Getting a lightning bolt zapping through your body is not as uncommon as it used to be. In 2019, there were 300 million lightning strike cases reported worldwide, but there aren’t many people who get struck more than once. That honor goes to Walter.
Like Roy Sullivan, a 7-time lightning strike survivor, many people believe that Walter Summerfold is cursed. Many people don’t even consider the possibility of getting struck by lightning because it is so rare. Most lightning strike victims do survive, but they usually end up with neurologic and cardiovascular complications that could lead to death in a matter of years.
Strike One: On The Battlefield
The first time Walter Summerford was struck by lightning was back in World War I. At the time, he was a British officer raised by a good English family. He survived multiple battles leading his men into hell with huge chances of death every time, but something unexpected would take him out.
As Walter was marching on his horse, lightning struck him out of nowhere. The zap threw him off his horse, but it didn’t kill him. Sadly, he wished it had since he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. This obviously meant he could no longer lead his men to battle, which was quite disappointing for him.
A Brand-New Life
Years went by after Walter’s first lightning strike. Walter thought that since he survived such a terrible accident, God would give him a break from the dangerous things that could potentially harm him. Unfortunately, fate had other plans.
As most of us understand, we never know why certain things happen – life works in mysterious ways. Walter decided to move to Canada after the war and start a new life there. He wanted a family of his own and was very passionate about fishing and other outdoorsy activities.
Strike Two: A Miraculous Lightning Bolt
Walter spent most of his days fishing and even won several fishing competitions. The disabilities he was left with after the first strike didn’t stop him from doing what he wanted. One day in 1924, Walter was innocently out fishing when, suddenly, lightning struck him yet again.
This time, however, he wasn’t struck directly. He was actually sitting under a tree that got struck. But the current traveled through the tree and ended up zapping Walter. What’s interesting is that this strike may have actually helped him with his paralysis because two days later, he was miraculously able to use his legs again.
The Final Strike… Or Was It?
The third and final (sort of) time Walter would get hit by a lightning bolt was in 1930, six years after his second zapping. With the ability to use his legs, Walter felt like a new man. His new appreciation for walking led him to roam the forests and frolic through the parks.
As he took one of his usual walks around his local park one day, there was a sudden shift in weather. A beautiful sunny day turned into a sky covered with dark, angry-looking clouds. I bet you can guess what happened next…
Lucky or Unlucky?
Moments later, Walter heard a terrifying sound, one he was all too familiar with. He tried running for cover, but to no avail; he was struck by lightning once again, and this time, it was much more devastating than his previous strikes. The first time he got hit, Walter ended up in a wheelchair, and the second strike got him out of it.
Unfortunately, this lightning strike wasn’t as miraculous as the second or even the first zap. This time, Walter ended up completely paralyzed, from head to toe. What terrible luck… or is it? I mean, he’s extremely lucky to have even survived.
Is It a Curse?
After Walter’s third strike in 1930, he had to deal with a lot of medical complications. That last strike really affected every aspect of his life, and he managed to survive two years before ultimately passing away in 1932.
According to his family, Walter was scared to even be alive anymore. He was going senile and believed that someone had cursed him. As rare as lightning strikes are, they happen… It’s probably just a crazy coincidence that he got hit three times. But what happened next may lead you to believe that there was some sort of curse.
Struck After Death
Here is when things get even creepier. In 1936, four years after his funeral and six years after his last lightning strike, something weird happened. He was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, but he couldn’t even rest in peace.
Walter’s tombstone was struck by lightning. This assured his family as well as locals that someone had cursed Walter. The chance of this happening once in a lifetime is astronomically low, so three times in a lifetime and once after death is kind of chilling to think about.
Winston Kemp: Didn’t Even Know He Was Struck
Getting struck by lightning multiple times is quite a rarity, but so is getting struck once. It’s fascinating to think about but terrifying for the victims involved. In addition to physical and psychological damage, these victims are never the same. Winston Kemp is one of those people.
Winston’s zap was likely a ground strike in which the lightning spills to the ground around the impact spot of a direct hit. But the interesting part is that he didn’t even know he had been hit until hours later when his arm started hurting. Blisters formed soon after, but they eventually healed into a tragically beautiful pattern that looks like a cool tattoo.
Melvin Roberts: Six-Time Lightning Strike Survivor
Melvin Roberts is another rare victim who got struck by lightning multiple times. Six times to be exact. As we know, the chances of that happening are insane. To be fair, Roberts lives in Seneca, S.C. – a state where the likelihood of getting struck by lightning is higher than average.
It was a sunny day out during Roberts’s last strike. He was mowing his neighbor’s lawn and was very cautious of storms (he’d already been hit five times). Unfortunately for him, it is possible for lightning to travel miles before hitting the ground (or an unlucky person). So, Roberts really couldn’t prepare for this one; it was a warm beach day.
Austin Melton: Struck at a Basketball Game
14-year-old Austin Melton is another unlikely victim of lightning strikes. He was at a basketball game in his middle school in Sunriver, Oregon, when he experienced the shock of a lifetime. A storm knocked out the power in the gym, and as soon as Auston walked outside, ZAP! He was struck by lightning.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital with burns on his head, chest, and ankle. One of his eardrums was also perforated, which is likely due to the concussive effects of the lightning. The teenager landed the nickname “Sparky.”
Jens Gottlieb and Lisa Gruhn: Doing the Deed
Jens Gottlieb and his girlfriend Lisa Gruhn had a shared painful lightning strike experience, as well as the embarrassment of the circumstances surrounding it: Gottlieb and Gruhn were innocently having sex in the woods when a storm blew in.
But they didn’t let a little rain interrupt their dirty little session. But as soon as a lightning bolt nearby created a ground strike, the couple finally stopped. Nothing is more inconvenient while having sex than getting zapped by lightning. The couple ran out of the woods, and passer-byers called the police and drove them home. They came out of this one lucky.
Sophie Frost and Mason Billington: Romantic Walk Home
Sophie Frost was just 14 years old when she was walking back from with her boyfriend Mason’s house, and they both got struck by lightning. However, Sophie’s grandmother bought her an iPod that might have potentially saved her life.
The accident damaged Mason’s eyes, and Sophie was burned along the front of her body since the electric shock followed the wires of her iPod. Doctors said that this diversion could have easily saved the young girl’s life because the electricity was routed away from her vital organs, such as her heart. Both teens are expected to make a full recovery.
Lisa Wehrle: Lightning Struck From Miles Away
Lisa Wehrle was just an 11-year-old girl with no care in the world. The youngster can’t even be blamed for not seeking shelter the day she was struck because it was a beautiful sunny day with clear skies. Lightning strikes are rare enough when there is a storm going on.
Lisa and her friend were just walking when a lightning bolt flew from a storm miles away and hit Lisa on the shoulder. The strike went through her shoulder and out her wrist. It left her with a broken arm which could easily heal. Thankfully, she didn’t suffer any long-term physical injuries.
Alice Svensson: Taking a Shower
Can you imagine getting struck by lightning twice in one storm? Well, that’s exactly what happened to poor little 12-year-old Alice Svensson. She was at home in Gothenburg, Sweden, taking a shower when lightning raced through the plumbing of her house and zapped her.
At the time, she was completely unaware that she had been struck the first time. Her mother then came to help her finish in the shower when another hit struck the little girl through the shower pipes. Yikes! I guess there was a good reason my mom never let me shower when there was a storm out.