Rain and hail were pelting down, and a thunderclap roared across a lake in central California.
From afar, the fiery lightning strike that came with it looked like an explosion, darting down a tree trunk before it hit a father and his two young children who had hunkered down beneath it.
“It hit that person. It hit a person,” a camper shouted in a video that captured the scene earlier this month from across Jennie Lake near Sequoia National Park. “They fell into the – like near the water.”
“We have to go help them.”
Chris Lovera and his children – Aidan, 12, and Nadia, 9 – had gotten caught in a thunderstorm over Labor Day weekend and sought shelter under trees in the wilderness in Tulare County.
“We were struck at the lakeside, each of us channelling various amounts of the bolt that hit the tree at our back, and me and Aidan in head behind our left ears, passing through and across our bodies, until it made explosive contact with the ground,” Lovera later recounted on Facebook.
“I have never been more proud of my children, who despite severe burns, punctured eardrums, and much blood, in semiconsciousness, dragged themselves to safety,” Lovera wrote earlier this month.
“Aidan’s screaming brought me to consciousness, disoriented at seeing the blood clotted on the left of his head, and the blood and burns than ran down my body, and the trauma of seeing Nadia facedown up the hill from me, all of us in severe shock. My clothes had been shredded, burned and fused to parts of my body, and I could not move as I lay on my back.”
The campers, who are from Pacific Grove, had been fishing in the lake on a lazy Sunday, 3 September.
Lovera said the children had been using grasshoppers to catch trout but when the storm rolled in “in a rush”, they put down their fishing poles and took shelter under a blanket of trees.
Aidan nestled beside Lovera and Nadia curled up in his lap. Lovera started filming a video, showing him and his two children hunkered down under the tree, watching the storm surrounding them.
“I would not want to be out there,” one of the children said off-camera, referring to the lake. “I also wouldn’t want to be a fish right now.”
Lovera then turned the camera around, showing him with his young son and daughter.
“What are these the faces of?” Lovera asked them, laughing. “They’re not the faces of happy campers or happy backpackers right now.”
Thunder could be heard rumbling in the background.
The three watched the video, then Lovera slid his cellphone into his breast pocket – and that’s exactly where their shared story ends.
“It’s at that point we got hit,” Lovera said Thursday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “We all lost consciousness, and each of us had an individual view when we woke up.”
Nadia woke up first, her father said, and started to drag herself up an embankment with her arms because she didn’t have use of her legs.
Then she passed out again, hitting her head on a rock.
When Aidan started to stir, he noticed his father, who had suffered the most severe injuries – his clothes ripped open, exposing skin that had been colored red and black down the middle of his body.
“I thought he was dead because I was just screaming at him and I couldn’t see him breathing or moving,” the boy told CBS San Francisco.
“He wasn’t moving,” Nadia said, “and I got really scared.”
Although Lovera said he doesn’t remember it, his children told him that at some point he instructed them to try to get themselves to safety.
The chances that a person will be struck by lightning in his or her lifetime are about 1 in 13,000, and the chances that he or she will be affected by someone who is struck are about 1 in 1,350, according to data from the National Weather Service.
But only about 10 percent of those who are struck are killed, according to the data.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 35 people are killed by lightning incidents each year in the United States.
Following the incident in California, Lovera posted graphic pictures on Facebook from the hospital, showing what he has described as first- and second-degree burns roped across his back and down his right arm.
After the incident, he said, he couldn’t feel anything from his shoulders down. Doctors later told the 51-year-old marine biologist he had likely suffered from a form of temporary paralysis that can occur after such strikes.
The children suffered less severe burns and had exit wounds on their feet, Lovera said. All three of them had ruptured eardrums – although Nadia’s ear injury was minor and has already healed, he said.
“Nadia was sitting in my lap and was shielded from a lot of this,” he said.
Lovera said that he and Aidan are still struggling with some hearing loss.
The father of two wrote on Facebook that he and his children are alive “because of the common and selfless bravery of so many wonderful people.”
He told The Post that after the lightning struck, nearby campers rushed to the scene, scooping up his children and then kneeling down to tend to him.
Because he could not move, he said, the campers got a tarp and carried him to a safer area, where they kept the shivering father covered and reassured him that his children were safe.
When he started to regain feeling in his body, he said an intense burning “like nothing I’ve ever felt before” spread across his torso; he became worried he was bleeding internally, so the campers checked his body.
A California Highway Patrol helicopter took them to a hospital, he said.
“The thing that I come away with,” Lovera said, “is we were out there in a really dire situation, and it’s amazing to me to think back on all these people and how extraordinary they were in going out into this scene.”
“Without hesitation,” he added, “they were around me and my children and working so compassionately to make sure we were okay.”
Lovera said he knows he’s “really fortunate to be in a world with people like this”.
2017 © The Washington Post
This article was originally published by The Washington Post.