Bolt from Above

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Lightning struck an instructor and three students from Detachment 3, 342nd Training Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., during a training exercise at the nearby Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., range Feb. 22.

Staff Sgt. John Dean, the 31-year-old instructor, suffered serious wounds and had to be hospitalized for 48 hours and placed on quarters for 14 days. He was still receiving medical treatment two months after the incident. The students included Staff Sgt. Michael Fox, 22; Airman 1st Class Ryan Cleaver, 20; and Airman Basic Duriel Harris, 19, all of whom sustained only minor injuries and were released from the hospital the same day of the incident.

The strike knocked the four members off of their feet as they were conducting vehicle navigation training near their HUMVEE as part of the Tactical Air Command and Control Apprentice Course.

"I was three feet from the vehicle when everything went black," said Dean, a West Virginia native.

An instant after his world went dark, the instructor said he regained his sight as his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame went crashing to the ground.

"Everything happened so fast," said Dean, a husband and father of a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. "I was falling, but I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't move to catch myself."

When the sergeant hit the ground, he lay staring into the eyes of Fox, who also was temporarily immobilized.

"That was an eerie moment, as we just lay there staring at each other wide-eyed," Dean said.

But while Fox and the two other students quickly regained their footing, Dean lay there unable to move other than the involuntary twitching and convulsions of his body.

"At first I could barely speak," Dean said. "I couldn't get a full sentence out."

But he did manage to force out one word. ...


Then the pain hit.

As another instructor approached Dean to render assistance, the strike victim yelled, "Don't hit me again! Don't hit me again!"

"The instructor thought I was hollering at him, but I was speaking directly to God at that point," Dean said. "Because I was totally expecting another bolt to come finish me off."

With his right arm and chest in agony, the instructor soon gave his attention to more than just God.

Trained professionals started assessing "my wounds and trying to move me," he said. "But even the slightest touch felt like they were thrusting hot knives into me."

Doctors later told Dean that the lightning bolt had entered through his right triceps, traveled across his chest, then went down his abdomen and hip. From there it followed his sciatic nerve down his left leg, past his ankle and finally exited out the side of his left foot.

Safety investigators concluded that the mishap likely occurred as the result of a lightning arc, as opposed to a direct hit, which probably would have inflicted even more serious injuries.

For Dean, the damage seemed plenty bad enough.

"At first all the pain was coming from my arm and my chest," he said. "My left leg was so fried, it felt like it wasn't there. The first time I tried to get up, it was like trying to stand on Jell-O."

But the numbness in his lower limb wouldn't last.

"Eventually, the big hurt came from my leg," he said.

As a matter of fact, he endured so much pain for the first month after the strike that he said he could hardly think straight because he was heavily medicated.

Fortunately, medical experts don't believe he suffered any permanent damage. The impaired nerves in his leg are regenerating. He still goes to physical therapy twice a week and regularly sees a neurologist, but doctors expect him to make a full recovery.

Ironically, Dean is a combat veteran who has served on the front lines in both Iraq and Afghanistan calling in close air support strikes for the Army -- the same thing he is teaching his students to do.

"I survived those hot spots, only to get struck by lightning in a training environment," he said.

Mishap investigators said that the team complied with local lightning procedures in place at the time of the incident, but did propose some changes to those guidelines to help prevent future strikes. Among those recommendations is having their unit added to the Duke Field, Fla., weather notification checklist for prompt notification of inclement weather or other events.

And Dean has some advice of his own.

"If there's a storm in the area, go inside until it has completely passed," he said. "It'll be worth the wait."