Roy Sullivan was a ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA. He became famous for unwittingly shattering a rather unenviable world record. This newer, shorter, experimentaler podcast episode tells his story.
This piece was intended primarily as an audio/podcast experience. You can listen by clicking Podcast above, and/or read the transcript below.
This is Damn Interesting.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in April of 1942. He was struck by lightning. He was a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in the United States. A nasty looking thunderstorm rolled in while Roy was out patrolling one day, so he took shelter in one of the park’s brand new fire lookout towers. Unfortunately, this particular tower had not yet been outfitted with lightning rods, so it became a very attractive target for the lightning. With each lightning strike, Roy would later describe, sparks and fire flew around him. Roy quickly realized he had not selected the ideal shelter and he conducted himself accordingly. When he attempted to flee somewhere safer, however, he’d only taken a few steps outside of the tower when he heard a deafening clap and was blinded by a very bright light. When he regained consciousness, he found a long line of burns running all the way down down his right leg and a smoldering, smoking hole in his shoe with a little bit of blood drizzling out. The lightning had destroyed the big toe on his right foot. Roy Sullivan survived his brush with lightning and recovered, but it was not an experience he cared to repeat.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in July of 1969. He was struck by lightning. He was driving his truck along a mountain road when a bolt of lightning struck a copse of nearby trees. It arced in through the open truck window and struck Roy. He awoke some minutes later still in his truck, but his eyebrows, eyelashes, and most of his hair had burned away. During the time that he was unconscious his truck had coasted to a stop not too far from a sheer drop off.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in July of 1970. He was struck by lightning. He was at home, standing near the edge of his garden when a bolt of lightning hit a nearby power transformer, which arced across the yard to strike him in the shoulder. He was thrown several feet and his skin was singed, but he was not seriously injured.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in April of 1972. He was struck by lightning. He was manning a registration center at a Shenandoah campground when a sudden massive clap of thunder momentarily deafened him. As the flying debris settled and the ringing in his ears subsided, he heard a strange crackling sound. It turned out to be his hair. It was burning. He ran to the men’s room and doused the flames with wet paper towels, but by then most of his fine white hair had burned away.
“I have never been a fearful man,” Roy once told a local reporter who was writing an article about his lightning experiences, “but I have to tell you the truth: when I hear it thunder now, I feel a little shakey.” In the course of the interview, he rolled up his shirt sleeves and his trouser cuffs to reveal the long, wavy burn scars on his arms and legs. He’d been struck four times now, and though that was not a world record, it was close. Allegedly, some of his friends and family began to avoid him for fear of being struck by lightning themselves. But really, one has to ask, what would be the odds that he would be struck yet again?
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in August of 1973. He was struck by lightning. He was out patrolling Shenandoah National Park when a treacherous looking storm began to gather in the sky overhead. Reluctant to loiter around thunderstorms too long, Roy drove away, but as he would describe later, the storm seemed to be following him. When he felt he had finally driven far enough from the storm to be safe, he stepped out of his truck.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in June of 1976. He was struck by lightning. Again he spotted a gathering storm, and again he tried to flee, but it was too fast. Again he was struck. For Roy, getting struck by lightning seemed to have grown almost routine because he had very little to say about this particular event. Apart from the typical superficial burns, the only thing he had to report was a slightly injured ankle.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in June 1977. He was struck by lightning. He was out fishing alone, standing in a shallow pool. This bolt of lightning hit Roy directly on the top of his head. It singed his hair badly and left burns across his torso. He assessed the extent of his injuries, he gathered up his catch, and began to slosh toward the shore. He was ready to call it a day. As he approached his car, a massive American black bear emerged from the woods, sniffing the air. Ordinarily, these bears don’t bother people, but Roy Sullivan happened to have a basket of fresh, delicious trout hanging from his shoulder. The bear approached. Roy, still slightly smoldering from the lightning which had struck him just minutes earlier, spotted a tree branch on the ground, and he picked it up. The bear advanced. Roy was evidently fed up with nature for the day because he didn’t relent. Fortunately, a moderate bludgeoning was all that was necessary to convince the bear that it wasn’t worth the fight and it retreated into the woods.
By this time, Roy Sullivan had survived seven verifiable lightning strikes, enough that he was finally officially recognized by The Guiness Book of World Records as the person struck by lightning more times than any other human being. Currently, the record still stands. It’s worth pointing out that these seven official strikes did not include the time when Roy was allegedly struck by lightning as a child, for which he could not provide any material evidence. Nor does it count the time his wife was struck by lightning while hanging the wash on a clothesline mere feet away from Roy. He was not personally electrified on that occasion.
The final moment in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in September of 1983. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71 years old.
This was Damn Interesting. I’m Alan Bellows.