El Paso County, Colorado lightning fatality of 02 September 2007:
Lightning fatality inside a tent at Lookout Point southwest of Colorado Springs

Stephen Hodanish
National Weather Service
Pueblo, Colorado

This research is part of the Lightning Casualty Case Study section of the Colorado Lightning Resource Page, NWS Pueblo, Colorado. 

"The primary reason for these lightning casualty case studies is to observe where victims were located relative to thunderstorm activity when they were struck".

    Introduction

On 2 September 2007, a 21 year old male was killed by lightning while inside a tent which was located in the foothills 8 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado (Fig 1). Three other people were also in the tent when the flash occurred, but they received only minor injuries. An autopsy report indicated the man who was killed was lying down on the ground inside the tent at the time of the flash. The autopsy report indicated the electrical current entered through his elbow on which he was leaning on at the time, traveled through his torso, and exited his buttocks. The other three occupants in the tent were standing at the time of the flash.

 

location of lightning fatality 8 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado

Figure 1. Satellite view of the location of the lightning fatality (green arrow, center). click on image for a larger view. A zoomed in view is shown in Figure 5. Image from Google Maps.


    Description of the location of where the fatality occurred

An examination of the site the day after the fatal flash occurred indicated that the tent was located at the very top of a hill (Fig. 2). This hill is known to the local population as "Lookout Point", as it offers a panoramic view of the greater Colorado Springs area. Rips in the tent (believed to be caused by the flash) were found on the bottom of the tent. A total of 6 tears were found (Fig 3). No other tears were found anywhere else on the tent. It is believed that flash struck the top of the boulder which was immediately behind the tent (Fig 4.). It then traveled to the ground and across the bottom of the tent surface. Examination of trees and other objects in the immediate vicinity of the tent indicated no obvious lightning strike damage.

 

location of tent

Figure 2. Photograph of "Lookout Point" (see text for description). The arrow points to the location of where the tent was located.    The author took this photograph from the Lookout Point parking lot (see figure 5 for a close up satellite view of this location)

 

 

Figure 3. Rip marks on the bottom of the tent. Five of the six rip marks are shown in the photograph above. The 6th rip mark was located near the immediate entrance of the tent (not shown).

 

Figure 4. Photograph of tent and boulder immediately behind tent.


    Data Analysis

In order to observe which lightning flash caused the fatality, two pieces of information need to be known. The first piece of information is knowing the exact time when the lightning flash hit the victim, and the second is the location of where the victim was struck. Typically, the victims' location is well documented by rescue authorities. In this case, the victims location was documented by GPS (38.74153N, 104.91164W).

The time of when the fatal flash occurred is also believed to be fairly accurate. Reports from the media and the El Paso County Search and Rescue team indicated after the victim was struck, one of the other 3 people in the tent tried to call 911 using their personal cell phones. However, the cell phones (which were in the tent at the time) were damaged by the flash and were not operable. Noticing that their phones did not work, one of the three ran down the hill and to a nearby road (Gold Camp Road) and flagged down a motorist who had a cell phone. According to the El Paso County, Colorado 911 dispatch records, this phone call arrived at the operations center at 19:03 MDT 02 September (0103 UTC 03 September). It is unknown to the author how long it took to flag down a motorist (Gold Camp Road is a dirt road connecting Cripple Creek/Victor, Colorado to Colorado Springs Colorado and is not well traveled). Figure 5 shows a zoomed in satellite photo of the tent location and Gold Camp Road.

 

 

Figure 5. Zoomed in satellite view of the strike location. Green arrow marks the location of the tent. Note Click here for a topographical image of this location (courtesy Skee Hipszky, El Paso County Search and Rescue). Image from Google Maps.

Once the temporal and spatial information is known, then it is a matter of reviewing the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) data set and observe which flash caused the casualty at the location and time found above. The NLDN data set revealed that a negative cloud to ground lightning flash ( -29 kA) occurred at the geographical location of 38.739803N, 104.908905W. This in the immediate vicinity (0.19 miles) of where the fatality occurred at Lookout Point (38.74153N, 104.91164W). The flash occurred at 0052.29 UTC (Figure 6).

 

Figure 6. Radar and lightning data of the region where the lightning casualties occurred. (click on image for a full resolution view). Lightning data shows the cloud to ground lightning activity which occurred between 0052:00 and 0052:59 UTC 03 Sept 2007 (6:52:00 - 6:52:59 pm MDT 02 Sept 2007). The lightning strike location is  shown with a white "-". Only one flash occurred during this 1 minute time period, and it occurred over the immediate Lookout Point area. Radar data was from the National Weather Service Doppler radar site KPUX.  Click here for a zoomed in view of the image above.

 

In order to observe the trends in lightning activity prior to the lightning strike fatality, both lightning data and radar data was analyzed over a 400 statute square mile (20 sm x 20 sm) area, centered at the location of where the fatality occurred (Fig. 7). The time of this analysis was from 0025 UTC to 0059 UTC (the fatality is believed to have occurred at 0052.29 UTC).

Analysis of this data between 0025 UTC and the time of the fatal flash indicated this storm was quite electrically active. From 0025 UTC to the time of the fatal flash, 84 cloud to ground lightning flashes occurred with this storm (~3.2 cloud to ground lightning flashes per minute). A large majority of these flashes during this time period were within 2 miles of the fatality site (51 of 84 flashes, or (61%). Table 1 list all of the flashes between 0025 UTC and the time of the fatal flash. (Note: to get a feel for distance, the author took a photograph from the fatality site looking towards downtown Colorado Springs. The distance to downtown Colorado Springs in this photo is 8 miles. Downtown Colorado Springs is in the center of this photograph.

Radar showed a convective shower producing heavy rain (greater than 50 dBz (red coloring in radar imagery in Figure 7)) was located just to the northeast of Lookout Point and was moving towards Lookout Point (i.e., southwest at 15 mph).  From the radar/lightning loop in Figure 7, the fatal flash occurred just after the heaviest rain had moved over Lookout Point.

    Discussion

On 02 September 2007, at 0652 pm, a 21 year old male was electrocuted by a lightning flash at Lookout Point 8 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Three other people (2 female, 1 male) were also in the tent, but received only minor injuries. An analysis of the tents location indicated it was on the very top of a hill ("Lookout Point"). A 34 minute loop of both radar and lightning data indicated the storm which produced the flash was quite electrically active during the entire time period prior to the flash, producing over 3 cloud to ground lightning flashes every minute. A large majority of these flashes during this period were occurring within 2 miles of the tents locations.




Figure 7.  Loop of Radar and Lightning data centered on the location of where the fatality occurred (Click on image for larger view). Loop of "1 minute" lightning data" runs from 0025 to 0059 UTC (34 minutes). Radar data is composite reflectivity data from National Weather Service Doppler weather radar KPUX. Note that in the above loop, the "1 minute" lightning data shows all of the cloud to ground lightning that occurred during that one minute time period; i.e., "1 minute lightning plot Wed 00:42" indicates all of the lighting which occurred between 00:41:00 and 00:41:59). In the above loop, The 1 minute lighting plots change every minute while the radar data changes every 4-5 minutes. The reason for this is It takes 4-5 minutes to generate one composite radar reflectivity image. The "time date stamp" of the radar data denotes the time the radar image began.


From a lightning safety perspective, could anything have been done to prevent this tragic event? Those who study the science of lightning know that lightning has a preference to strike tall objects. The location of the tent in this case study was was found to be located on the very top of a tall hill (see Figure 2). The occupants in the tent knew of the lightning occurring but continued to remain in the tent. Some of these flashes were occurring very close to the tents location prior to the fatal flash (See Table 1 below for all flash locations from 0025 UTC up to the fatal flash which occurred at 0052 UTC - note how close some of these flashes were to the tents location!). It is not known to the author if any of the occupants vehicles were nearby in the parking lot, but if a vehicle was located in the parking lot, the 4 occupants of the tent could have gone to one of these vehicles and sought safe shelter. (All automobiles, except convertibles, offer very safe shelter from lightning activity). Even if a vehicle was not in the parking lot, it would have been safer if the occupants left the tents location and scurried down off the hill top towards a lower area. Although there is no safe location outside during lightning activity, there is less risk of being struck by lightning away from the top of a tall hill.

In summary,
these people made very poor decisions which cost one of them their life:

   
1. They chose a very poor location for a campsite. You should never place a tent on the top of a hill and remain in it during lightning activity.
     2. They chose not to leave this location once lightning began to occur. They would have been safer to find a lower location then to remain in this tent which was located on the very top of a hill
     3. It is unknown if their vehicle was in the parking lot which was located nearby. If their vehicle was in the parking lot, they should have run down to the vehicle and remained in it until after the storm had passed (it is best to wait 30 minutes until the last rumble of thunder.)

Outdoor Lightning risk reduction recommendations can be found either here ... here ... here ... or here

Any comments regarding this report should be addressed to the author.


TABLE 1. Location (Latitude and Longitude) of  cloud to ground lightning flashes between 0025 UTC 03 Sept (6:25 MDT 02 Sept) and the time of the fatal flash (0052:29 UTC 03 Sept; 06:52:29 MDT 02 Sept). The last column is the distance between the flash and the location of where the fatality occurred. According to Vaisala Inc. (the organization which runs the national lightning detection network), as of 1998, the accuracy of location of the cloud to ground lightning flash data has a median location accuracy of 500 meters, or a little over 1/3 of a mile (.31 miles or 1637 feet). In 2002, the NLDN network was upgraded, and the accuracy is believed to be even better than 500 meters, but no studies have recently been completed (Cummins 2003, personal communication). The letter "kA" represent KiloAmpheres. A negative sign "-" in front of this value represents a negative flash.

 

Date Time (UTC) Latitude Longitude kA Distance (sm)
3-Sep-07   00:25:13 38.730831 -104.756165 -31 8.41
3-Sep-07   00:25:37 38.726986 -104.749756 -19 8.78
3-Sep-07   00:25:45 38.734676 -104.862976 -19 2.66
3-Sep-07   00:26:16 38.746212 -104.907837 -27 0.38
3-Sep-07   00:26:35 38.747494 -104.823456 -13 4.77
3-Sep-07   00:26:39 38.742367 -104.858704 -7 2.85
3-Sep-07   00:26:43 38.725704 -104.922791 -21 1.25
3-Sep-07   00:27:06 38.750057 -104.881134 -7 1.75
3-Sep-07   00:27:17 38.750057 -104.90036 -11 0.85
3-Sep-07   00:27:32 38.760311 -104.86618 -23 2.77
3-Sep-07   00:27:50 38.719296 -104.782867 -13 7.10
3-Sep-07   00:28:23 38.752621 -104.858704 -31 2.95
3-Sep-07   00:29:02 38.748775 -104.906769 -15 0.56
3-Sep-07   00:29:34 38.768002 -104.898224 -13 1.97
3-Sep-07   00:30:12 38.712887 -104.901428 -19 2.05
3-Sep-07   00:30:33 38.74493 -104.907837 -21 0.31
3-Sep-07   00:30:39 38.70776 -104.897156 -21 2.46
3-Sep-07   00:30:58 38.764156 -104.838409 -9 4.24
3-Sep-07   00:31:08 38.748775 -104.896088 -17 0.98
3-Sep-07   00:31:20 38.741085 -104.891815 -3 1.07
3-Sep-07   00:31:45 38.748775 -104.891815 -11 1.18
3-Sep-07   00:32:03 38.741085 -104.920654 -19 0.49
3-Sep-07   00:32:07 38.711605 -104.775391 -21 7.62
3-Sep-07   00:32:14 38.739803 -104.891815 -3 1.07
3-Sep-07   00:32:17 38.712887 -104.897156 -19 2.13
3-Sep-07   00:32:39 38.733395 -104.87793 -3 1.90
3-Sep-07   00:32:47 38.735958 -104.892883 -23 1.08
3-Sep-07   00:32:50 38.746212 -104.901428 -5 0.64
3-Sep-07   00:33:22 38.74493 -104.878998 -41 1.77
3-Sep-07   00:33:23 38.750057 -104.929199 -21 1.11
3-Sep-07   00:33:43 38.742367 -104.880066 -21 1.70
3-Sep-07  00:33:46 38.729549 -104.903564 -9 0.93
3-Sep-07   00:33:58 38.739803 -104.909973 -21 0.15
3-Sep-07   00:34:14 38.741085 -104.963379 -13 2.79
3-Sep-07   00:34:17 38.709042 -104.905701 -11 2.27
3-Sep-07   00:34:35 38.74493 -104.880066 -5 1.72
3-Sep-07   00:35:04 38.719296 -104.944153 -19 2.33
3-Sep-07   00:35:30 38.757748 -104.861908 -13 2.90
3-Sep-07   00:35:40 38.739803 -104.915314 -21 0.23
3-Sep-07   00:35:56 38.710323 -104.927063 -15 2.31
3-Sep-07   00:36:22 38.721859 -104.921722 -11 1.46
3-Sep-07   00:36:28 38.738522 -104.896088 -9 0.86
3-Sep-07   00:36:31 38.728268 -104.890747 -9 1.45
3-Sep-07   00:36:59 38.783382 -104.942017 -15 3.32
3-Sep-07   00:37:19 38.738522 -104.898224 -7 0.75
3-Sep-07   00:37:20 38.733395 -104.916382 -11 0.62
3-Sep-07   00:37:28 38.756466 -104.830933 -31 4.47
3-Sep-07   00:37:45 38.70776 -104.89502 -7 2.50
3-Sep-07   00:37:58 38.742367 -104.870453 -33 2.22
3-Sep-07   00:38:15 38.734676 -104.875793 -27 1.99
3-Sep-07   00:38:43 38.730831 -104.880066 -17 1.85
3-Sep-07   00:39:05 38.780819 -104.896088 -31 2.84
3-Sep-07   00:39:22 38.741085 -104.923859 -27 0.66
3-Sep-07   00:39:48 38.735958 -104.920654 -37 0.62
3-Sep-07   00:40:01 38.76672 -104.930267 -21 2.01
3-Sep-07   00:40:26 38.741085 -104.922791 -17 0.60
3-Sep-07   00:40:30 38.73724 -104.922791 -17 0.67
3-Sep-07   00:41:05 38.733395 -104.929199 -21 1.10
3-Sep-07   00:41:54 38.778255 -104.913177 -15 2.54
3-Sep-07   00:42:11 38.720577 -104.820251 -13 5.13
3-Sep-07   00:42:20 38.734676 -104.878998 -23 1.82
3-Sep-07   00:42:42 38.768002 -104.923859 -25 1.94
3-Sep-07   00:43:15 38.761593 -104.935608 -15 1.89
3-Sep-07   00:43:29 38.71545 -104.921722 -5 1.88
3-Sep-07   00:43:56 38.760311 -104.933472 -27 1.75
3-Sep-07   00:44:56 38.757748 -104.932404 -5 1.58
3-Sep-07   00:45:07 38.769283 -104.916382 -17 1.93
3-Sep-07   00:45:35 38.771847 -104.930267 -17 2.32
3-Sep-07   00:45:47 38.762875 -104.916382 -11 1.50
3-Sep-07   00:46:04 38.764156 -104.909973 -25 1.56
3-Sep-07   00:46:13 38.768002 -104.932404 -15 2.14
3-Sep-07   00:46:17 38.73724 -104.882202 -17 1.61
3-Sep-07   00:46:33 38.759029 -104.923859 -21 1.38
3-Sep-07   00:46:43 38.74493 -104.904633 -17 0.44
3-Sep-07   00:46:56 38.757748 -104.912109 -7 1.12
3-Sep-07   00:47:20 38.728268 -104.904633 -7 0.99
3-Sep-07   00:47:59 38.706478 -104.890747 -55 2.67
3-Sep-07   00:49:08 38.720577 -104.854431 -17 3.40
3-Sep-07   00:49:22 38.746212 -104.922791 -17 0.68
3-Sep-07   00:49:32 38.755184 -104.920654 -7 1.06
3-Sep-07   00:50:14 38.750057 -104.943085 -49 1.79
3-Sep-07   00:51:10 38.747494 -104.945221 -47 1.85
3-Sep-07   00:51:26 38.720577 -104.868317 -15 2.75
3-Sep-07   00:51:55 38.730831 -104.929199 -23 1.20
3-Sep-07   00:52:29 38.739803 -104.908905 -29 0.19

 
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