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