Whoever said lightning never strikes twice never met Roy Sullivan.
Sullivan was born on February 7, 1912. From 1936 to his retirement in 1977, he served as a United States park ranger in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. By all accounts, he performed his duties competently. It is was what happened to him on the job that merits special attention.
Sullivan was struck by lightning.
That fact, in and of itself, is interesting, but it is by no means unique. Commonplace Fun Facts has documented the lightning-induced death of American revolutionary James Otis and the time professional baseball player Ray Caldwell was struck during a game yet managed to recover and finish out the game.
Roy Sullivan’s experience with lightning was different than anyone else’s. He was struck by lightning. He survived. He repeated that cycle six more times.
That’s right. Over a span of 35 years, Sullivan survived seven separate lightning strikes. Guinness World Records identifies him as the person struck by lightning more than any other human.
The first remarkable incident took place in April 1942. Sullivan was in a fire lookout tower, waiting out a thunderstorm. The tower had just been built. Sadly, it was not yet equipped with a lightning rod. Sullivan reported the tower being hit seven or eight times. He said, “Fire was jumping all over the place” inside the tower. He decided he would be safer outside. As he was running from the tower, he was struck by a bolt. It left a half-inch strip of burnt flesh all along his right leg. The lightning went out through his toe, leaving a hole in his shoe.
As frightening as this was, it would strangely be one of the more mild encounters with the terrifying bolts from above — at least in terms of his hair, as we will see in the subsequent events.
Sullivan went 27 years before his next encounter with lightning. This would mark the longest lightning-free period of his career. It ended in July 1969. When the storm came, this time he was in what is generally considered to be one of the safest places to be during a storm: his truck. The metal body of vehicles typically protects occupants from lightning’s ill effects. This did not hold for Sullivan, however, as he drove along a mountain road. Lightning hit a nearby tree before deflecting into the open window of the truck. Sullivan was knocked unconscious. Miraculously, the truck stopped before getting to the edge of a cliff.
When Sullivan awoke, he found that the lightning had set his hair on fire and burned off his eyebrows and eyelashes. He was otherwise unharmed.
One year went by before his third encounter. In July 1970, Sullivan was in his front yard when lightning hit a nearby power transformer. It jumped from there to the man, searing his left shoulder.
His hair was a bit messy, but it, fortunately, remained fire-free.
He went nearly two years without unwanted electricity until the next incident. In spring 1972, Sullivan was in a ranger station, but that did not prevent him from being struck again. The charge set his hair ablaze. He first tried to put out the fire with his jacket, but the stubborn flames persisted. He hurried to the bathroom to douse his hair with water, but he couldn’t fit his head under the faucet. Instead, he wetted a towel and used it to smother his burning hairdo.
It was at this point that Sullivan began to suspect that Mother Nature had it in for him. He said from that point, whenever he was caught in a storm, he would pull over and lie down in the front seat of his vehicle until the storm passed. He also began the practice of carrying a can of water with him at all times, just in case he needed to deal with any more incidents of burning hair.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It wouldn’t have taken four lightning strikes for any of us to feel a little nervous in a thunderstorm.
Nearly a year and a half went by before Sullivan’s fifth encounter. He was driving through the park on August 7, 1973. When he spotted a storm cloud on the horizon, he turned around and began driving to a safe location. From his perspective, however, the storm was pursuing him. As his truck sped through the tree-lined roads, he thought he had thrown the storm off his track and that it would be safe to leave the vehicle. EDITOR’S NOTE: Seriously????
No sooner did he step out of his truck when — you guessed it. Sullivan said he saw the bolt as it made its way to him. When it reached him, it moved down his left arm and left leg before knocking off his shoe. It wasn’t quite done with him yet, however. The electricity jumped to his right leg, just below the knee.
It also set his hair on fire. Fortunately, he was carrying water with him for just such an eventuality.
The rest of 1973 and all of the years 1974 and 1975 passed without further incident. Sullivan was just starting to get his hopes up that his experiences as a human lightning rod were over. On June 5, 1976, those hopes were dashed when he again tried, unsuccessfully, to outrun an advancing storm cloud. The lightning struck him, causing injury to his ankle.
It also set his hair on fire.
One year and 20 days later, it happened again. He was fishing in a freshwater pool when lightning nailed him on the top of his head. The bolt traveled down his body, burning his chest and stomach.
That’s right…. It also set his hair on fire.
Just when one would think things couldn’t get any worse — after all, the guy had just taken his seventh lightning strike — something happened that only reinforced Sullivan’s suspicions that nature didn’t like him. Sullivan shook off the effects of the lightning but decided he’d had enough of nature for the day. He was walking back to his car with his catch of trout when a bear ran up, intent on stealing the fish.
Sullivan decided he was done running from Mother Nature. He grabbed a tree branch and fought off the bear. He later recorded that this was the 22nd time he successfully fought off a bear with a piece of wood.
By this point, the poor guy had endured enough. He retired shortly thereafter, probably wondering why on earth he had pursued a career in the Great Outdoors.
What Are the Odds?
According to the National Weather Service, the odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are 1 out of 1,222,000. Over a lifespan of 80 years, the odds of this happening are 1 out of 15,300. If you happen to be hit by a lightning bolt, there is a 90% chance you will survive. In the ten years between 2009 and 2018, the United States has averaged 27 lightning fatalities per year.
Admittedly, Sullivan was in a profession that put him at a higher level of risk than most people. Additionally, the climate in Virginia makes it more prone to lightning than in many places. Between 1959 and 2000, Virginia saw 238 incidents of people struck by lightning (Roy Sullivan accounting for seven of these), resulting in 58 deaths.
So what is the likelihood that anyone will dethrone Roy Sullivan with the world record for surviving the most lightning strikes? A commonly-quoted number is 4.15 chances out of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. This is based on the premise that the odds of being struck once are 1 out of 280,000,000. We can find no reliable source that suggests the odds are this far-fetched.
Going with a more reliable source for the base number, such as those provided by the National Weather Service for the likelihood of being struck once during an 80 year period, we can find the odds of replicating Roy Sullivan’s experience this way: 1:15,3007 = 1:196,263,715,246,013,700,000,000,000,000. If you want to impress your friends, you can also say that it is one chance out of 196.3 octillion. Not nearly as unlikely as the prospect of an infinite number of monkeys randomly writing the works of Shakespeare, but a highly-unlikely scenario, nonetheless.
Sadly, Roy Sullivan took his own life by suicide in 1983 at the age of 71. He made it through seven lightning strikes and 22 bear attacks. He was convinced this meant that Nature wanted him to die. The lesson he missed was that God clearly wanted him to survive.