Shenandoah National Park Ranger Roy Sullivan Set the World Record for Being Hit by Lightning

Lightning bolt at Shenandoah National Park. Ranger Roy Sullivan was on the receiving end of a whole bunch of these. Photo by bjackrianaol via Flickr.

Roy Sullivan (1912-1983) was a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park for 36 years beginning in 1940. On seven occasions between 1942 and 1977, six of them in the park, Ranger Sullivan was struck by lightning and lived to tell about it.

Variously referred to as “Dooms,” “Sparky,” or the “human lightning rod,” Sullivan earned his entry in Guiness World Records the hard way. Two of his ranger Stetsons, both with lightning-damaged crowns, are on display in Guiness World Exhibit Halls.

If you go to Wikipedia and enter Roy Sullivan, this is the tally you will see for Roy’s seven lightning strikes:

1. 1942: Sullivan was hit for the first time when he was in a fire lookout tower. The lightning bolt struck him in the leg and he lost a nail on his big toe.
2. 1969: The second bolt hit him in his truck when he was driving on a mountain road. It knocked him unconscious and burned his eyebrows.
3. 1970: The third strike burned his left shoulder while in his front yard.
4. 1972: The next hit happened in a ranger station. The strike set his hair on fire. After that, he began to carry a pitcher of water with him.
5. August 7, 1973: A lightning bolt hit Sullivan on the head, blasted him out of his car, and again set his hair on fire.
6. June 5, 1974: Sullivan was struck by the sixth bolt in a campground, injuring his ankle. It was reported that he saw a cloud, thought that it was following him, tried to run away, but was still struck.
7. June 25, 1977: The seventh and final lightning bolt hit him when he was fishing. Sullivan was hospitalized for burns on his chest and stomach.

This summary, which is virtually identical to dozens of other Roy Sullivan lightning strike tallies you can find posted on the Internet, is marred by various inaccuracies. There is also the good ol’ BS factor, such as that one on exhibit in the reference to the 1972 strike. (If you really believe that Roy Sullivan would carry a “pitcher” of water with him everywhere he went, just in case he had to put out a fire in his own hair, you should seek professional help. He did carry a container of water in his vehicle for such an eventuality, though, and he apparently used it in 1973.)

My main gripe with this and all the other “seven lightning strikes” lists I’ve seen is that they fail to adequately express the truly bizarre nature of several of Roy Sullivan’s run-ins with lightning bolts.

In that first instance, back in 1942, Roy may not have been still in that fire lookout tower when the thunderstorm approached. He said on at least one occasion that he had bailed out of the tower (a lightning magnet) and was hot-footing it for a safer place when the bolt zapped him. He counted himself very lucky to still be alive, and indeed he was.

In that second instance, the 1969 one, Roy was hit by lightning while driving his truck down a mountain road. Now stop right there. To say that’s not supposed to happen is an understatement of stupendous proportions. Roy could probably have sat in that truck for a thousand years while lightning struck it a gazillion times and he’d never get hurt as long as he rolled up the windows, kept his arms inside, and didn’t touch the metal exterior. That’s how safe it is to be inside a vehicle during an electrical storm. (When a lightning bolt strikes a vehicle, the charge travels around the exterior, not through the interior, and just blows out the tires.) But Roy got hit while inside a vehicle anyway, and if you believe the stories that circulated about his other lightning adventures, that happened more than once.

He was even struck once while standing inside a ranger station, even though being injured by lightning while indoors is exceedingly unlikely unless you happen to be clutching a non-cordless phone, are in contact with plumbing, or are standing next to a chimney.

Here’s what happened that time in 1969. Roy was tooling down a mountain road (presumably Skyline Drive) with his windows rolled down when lightning struck a tree next to the road and then went laterally through the cab of his truck and out the other side, singeing his eyebrows en route to zapping tree number two on the opposite side of the road. The odds of that happening to a motorist are almost indescribably small, but remember, we are talking about Roy Sullivan here.

Strike number three (1970) occurred when Roy was walking across his yard to get his mail. Roy’s property is not a good place to be in an electrical storm, folks. Roy’s wife could have attested to that. She suffered nonfatal injuries when lightning struck her one day when she was hanging the wash in the back yard. (Roy was with her at the time. Was that why his wife got hit? Or perhaps that’s why she survived.)

In one of the instances (I think it was the 1973 one), Roy was struck by the only bolt of lightning produced by the low cloud that passed overhead. He was not “blasted out of his car,” as some sources have stated, but was standing near his vehicle at the time.

A story somebody told years ago (and I have no idea if any shred of it is true) goes like this: One of the times that lightning struck Roy and set his hair on fire, he rushed inside to a sink and tried to stick his head under a faucet, but his head wouldn’t fit into the narrow space between the faucet and the sink. He ended up dabbing at his smoldering hair with wet paper towels. One Internet source says he poured a five-gallon bucket of water over his head – the bucket he carried with him for that purpose. Either version of that story is a gem, don’t you agree?

If anybody every gets all this sorted out, please let me know. Trying to separate Roy Sullivan lightning strike facts from Roy Sullivan lightning strike fiction is giving me a headache.

People who learn about Roy Sullivan’s story are invariably curious about the odds of being struck by lightning multiple times. Statisticians have worked it all out, and the gist of it is fairly simple.

According to the National Weather Service, your chances of being struck by lightning in any given year are about one in 650,000. Your odds of being struck once in an 80-year lifetime are much higher, but still only about one in 3,000.

When you calculate the likelihood of multiple strikes, the numbers quickly escalate to gargantuan proportions. That’s because the way you calculate independent probability for lightning strikes is to multiply the odds. Thus, the odds of being struck by lightning twice in a 80-year lifetime are 3,000 times 3,000. In other words, the risk of being hit by lightning twice in your life is about one in nine million.

So, what are the odds of being struck by lightning seven times in an 80-year lifetime? The answer is one in (3,000 x 3,000 x 3,000 x 3,000 x 3,000 x 3,000 x 3,000). You can do the math in your head if you're familiar with exponents. The odds of being hit by lightning seven times in your lifetime are one in 2,187 followed by 21 zeroes. That is an awful lot of zeroes.

But don’t get carried away with the number, because it’s bogus. The calculation is accurate only if you are dealing with truly independent probabilities, and that’s most emphatically not the case with Roy Sullivan and his seven lightning strikes. You can’t ignore that Roy was a park ranger who lived and worked for decades in an environment that exposed him to much greater lightning risk than the populace at large. Whether he took adequate precautions to reduce his lightning risk is something I’m not qualified to judge, but that would be an important consideration.

Rangers generally bear a higher risk of being struck by lightning than the populace at large. They tend to spend lots of time outdoors and often find themselves in lightning-exposed situations such as mountainsides, beaches, and on the water. If you want to calculate the odds of Roy’s seven strikes, you’d have to use data pertaining to Roy’s occupation and locale. I’m not aware that anyone has ever done that, but I’ll bet that Roy still handily beat the odds.

On September 28, 1983, Roy Sullivan stopped tempting the fates and killed himself with a bullet to the head. Six long years had passed since he had last been hit by lightning.

Comments

Hi a very nice article about Roy Sullivan. for a quiz I need to know where he was buried. do you know this? Or perhaps can point me to where to find this information on the Internet?

Jan, the Netherlands

I don't have the information you need. Try contacting the Public Information Officer at Shenandoah National Park, which is where Ranger Roy Sullivan worked. The park's general information phone number is (540) 999-3500 or you can send an e-mail by visiting http://www.nps.gov/NER/sendmail.htm?o=%3B6.

Thank you very much for your quick response. Unfortunately I get all the time an error when I try so send an emailvia the link you mentioned. The reason for the error is not stated.

Regards,
Jan

Gordon Wissinger (Gordon_Wissinger@nps.gov) is the Chief Ranger at Shenandoah National Park. Try asking him for help. Chances are that he or someone he knows can at least get you started in the right direction to get the information you need.

Shame Jan uses you to cheat on a competition. We are all trying very hard to find the information the honest way.

You are very friendly for answerring him.

Irma, Nederland

Dear Bob,

In Holland we are playing an online search game on internet (it's the quiz that Jan mentioned). At the end there are nice prizes to win. One of the game rules is to find the answers only by searching on internet. It's even forbidden to phone or to mail persons/organisations for the answers.

We like to play a fair game. We will be very greatfull if you remove the postings from Jan Pieters and your answers. If you are interessed we will send you next friday 28th november the answer where Bill is buried.

with kind regards.

Admin

Coordinator Nationale Krakerc Competitie

Dear Bob,

In Holland we are playing an online search game on internet (it's the quiz that Jan mentioned). At the end there are nice prizes to win. One of the game rules is to find the answers only by searching on internet. It's even forbidden to phone or to mail persons/organisations for the answers.

We like to play a fair game. We will be very greatfull if you remove the postings from Jan Pieters and your answers. If you are interested we will send you next friday 28th november the answer where Bill is buried.

with kind regards.

Admin

coordinator Nationale Krakercompetitie

slim, Jan...

You'll have to referee your own contest. Providing and facilitating the exchange of information and ideas pertaining to America's national parks is a core purpose of this webzine. We'll continue to do that as we see fit, and you may rest assured that we have no plans to begin interrogating Traveler readers as to their motives for visiting our site.

But this is searching on the internet!!

Greetings from the Netherlands,

Monique

I am amazed there has not been a book written about Roy and his life. The story is absolutely fascinating if not absolutely tragic. I there any other information on Mr. Sullivan?

thats interesting i remeber my science teacher once told me about him its sad that after 7 stirkes he killed himself over a girl......

I can neither confirm nor deny any of the stories regarding Mr. Sulllivan. I will assert, however, that I have met several people in my lifetime that have been struck by lightening MORE than one time each. I have researched this phenomenon, and I believe that, once you have been struck, your energy field changes, and you become more likely to be struck repeatedly. These people did not possess less-than-average intelligence, and they were clearly not attempting to induce lightening strikes when they occurred.

I found this website while looking to see who had been hit the most. SOmething tells me that there are others out there that have been struck by lightening as many, if not more, times. I would love to hear your stories, if you are one of those people!

I think it was God

According to the 1992 Farmer’s Almanac Roy is buried at the Mount Horeb Cemetery, Mecklenburg County, Virginia

I wonder if you can shed some light on a part of this story that confuses me. Most sources say that Sullivan killed himself over unrequited love... so what about his wife? Her own lightning strike gets brought up, but nobody even mentions her name, let alone what happened to her.

my son and I were hit by lightning in 1986 while driving my brand new Buick Century..the lightning came through his window and out my side (drivers) striking us both in the upper lip.... I still have a bump on my lip where it came back out.... I just saw this article while I was researching to see the chances of getting hit twice.... esp. as he owns a contracting company and tends to keep on working during a storm...
The car was one of the earlier cars to have all the digital dials... all the dials went out and luckily the lights did stay on as it was very dark out... the car had less than 500 miles on it.... and never could be fixed... so there is no telling us that you can't be hit by lightning in a moving car... and the windows were both up!... it was pouring rain out...

Truly fascinating. For those who don't know, Shenandoah National Park is a ridgeline park--very narrow strip of land that runs along the crest and flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains at relatively high elevations. The Park receives more than its fair share of lightning strikes. I've always been absolutely paranoid about lightning, whether inside or outside, in a car or not--always sure that I will be hit, although it's not happened (knock, knock). I wonder if Roy for some reason lacked a healthy fear and he allowed himself to be in dangerous situations. But Gforce's energy field theory also makes sense to me -- lightning starts from the ground-up and if Roy had some energy field that somehow attracted a static electricity charge from the ground relative to his surroundings, it makes sense that he would be at greater risk of a strike. I wonder if he had a tendency to always be full of static charge, so he'd get a benign static electricity zap when he touched metal or zap others when he shook their hand. Maybe he tended to drag his feet on the ground when he walked, attracting static charge that way...

Margaret, I'm glad that you and your son weren't injured. That was a close call! That said, nothing you've said contradicts the article.

Of course you can be injured by lightning while inside an automobile or truck (I went to some pains to point that out in the article by relating the circumstances of the 1969 incident), but the odds of that happening are astonishingly tiny for the reasons I explained. It should be noted that no appreciable protection is offered to occupants of non-hardtop or open vehicles like convertibles or golf carts.

Lightning can pass through a glass window pretty much like it wasn't even there. The reason you close the vehicle's windows is to make sure you keep your arms inside and the rain outside.

Hi Mr.Sullivan if you hear a storm is coming then you should get inside.You should not be out side while there is dark clouds. If there is a storm don't stand near any windows.if you go on a moutain trip and there is a storm warning don't go because lightning mostly strikes high places.Don't be touching any meatal while it is storming because lightning is attrctide to it.

Scencerely, Parker McGehee