‘I’m going back to church’: lightning hits pals
One moment they were fishing at Loskop Dam in Middelburg, the next a bolt from the blue sent them flying
It had been an hour since fish had bitten at the Loskop Dam in Mpumalanga last Saturday. The sun was blazing and a few drops of rain began to fall.
Frustrated fishermen watched as safety officer Jaco le Roux finally reeled in a fish – and then there was an enormous “explosion”, a white flash, and Le Roux and his friend collapsed.
Lightning struck Le Roux’s rod before the storm even arrived, melting it into a ball resembling black candyfloss.
Witbank resident Clinton Fleming, 29, was standing next to Le Roux when he saw a bright light, then heard an enormous explosion. Next thing, he was flying through the air as a lightning bolt struck him.
For a moment he thought he was dying and couldn’t feel his body.
Fleming said: “I remember a bright light, the lightning and the noise. The most terrifying thing was the thunder.
“I can’t explain it,” he said when trying to describe the sensation. It was not at all like an electric shock.
“I didn’t feel pain. I was numb and hot.”
But his friend Le Roux was badly injured as the fishing rod had conducted the lightning to his abdomen.
Le Roux was screaming: “Eina!”
His stomach, where he had rested the rod, was burnt, leaving a gaping hole.
Le Roux’s wife, Desiree, later told his mother, Mariaan Mocke: “I thought he was dead.”
The pair’s children and wives, who witnessed the incident in horror, began to scream and cry. Fleming said: “It was really mayhem. The wives were screaming, the kids were screaming. The [nine-month-old] baby was crying after the loud noise. Everyone else at the [Loskop Dam Forever] resort was staring at us.”
He shouted instructions to get the children into the car for their safety. Later, he felt tingling sensations and was able to stand up.
Fisherman Keanan Soutar, who was at the resort, heard the bang. “People were standing there [at the dam] and then not standing there. I heard screaming ... I thought these guys were gone.”
Soutar raced over in his bakkie from 100m away.
He found Le Roux on the ground with his shirt and shorts burnt off, exposing his skin and body parts, so he covered him with a towel.
Eyewitness accounts differ on whether the smoke came from Le Roux’s body or his rod. Le Roux later told his mother he had been “in a hell of a lot of pain” and his hands felt burnt, despite no visible injury. His mother, Mocke, said: “I was in a state when I heard [about the incident on Saturday]. But he is alive and that is the most important thing.”
Soutar called his mother and she called the paramedics. They took the men to hospital.
Fleming has been discharged.
Le Roux, who has no medical aid, travels to a Witbank hospital daily for his abdomen wound to be cleaned.
His mother said: “I think my son is supposed to be in hospital but it costs R15,000 a night. I give thanks he is alive. We were very lucky. God still has got a plan for him.
“He has two small children he needs to raise.”
Mocke said it would cost about R60,000 just to slightly close the wound so reconstruction can take place.
His sister-in-law has started fundraising to get Le Roux to hospital.
Witnesses and the incident report compiled by staff from the resort suggested there was no warning that lightning would strike.
Soutar said: “There were a few clouds coming in and greyish [cloud] cover, but it was not very dark. All of a sudden its starts to druppel (drip) bigger drops.”
The sky was mostly clear – “it was a cloud burst”.
After a few minutes of rain the lightning came, “all of sudden, out of nowhere”.
Fleming said he hadn’t even noticed the raindrops before the lightning flash, while the storm was on the other side of the dam.
Soutar said that when the paramedics – who raced 60km from Middelburg – arrived, there was no sign of the earlier rain: “It was sunny. He was sweating from the heat.”
Heidi Halgryn, marketing manager for Forever Resorts, said that according to the incident report, when staff arrived Fleming was walking around and Le Roux was lying on ground, “fully conscious and smoking a cigarette”.
“Jaco asked for lots of cigarettes,” confirmed Fleming.
Halgryn said the report didn’t record him having burnt clothes.
But Soutar said Le Roux’s clothes had been singed off completely, exposing his skin, which is why he had been covered by a towel and blankets.
Forensic pathologist Professor Ryan Blumenthal, who is also a lightning injury expert, said lightning can strike even when there is no rain.
“One may encounter a ‘bolt out of the blue’, which is where lightning strikes within 10km of a storm cell. The sky appears blue and lightning strikes randomly out of the blue sky.
“Lightning may happen from volcanic ash clouds and dust storms – in other words, one does not necessarily have to have a thundercloud.”
Blumenthal said a lightning strike didn’t mean certain death. “For every three killed by lightning, seven will survive. Other literature says for every one killed by lightning, nine will survive.”
He said research showed there were about 100 people killed by lightning every year in SA.
The county gets 25 million flashes that hit the ground and which can be deadly, with the Drakensberg the worst affected.
Blumenthal cautioned: “Remember, lightning is dangerous. When thunder roars, go indoors.”
This applied to rugby, swimming – any outdoor event – and it was best to wait up to 30 minutes after a storm had passed.
A partially enclosed structure such as a stoep or gazebo was not safe enough either.
Amateur photographer Neale du Plooy said this summer had been so hot he had been taking photos of lightning almost daily in Pretoria.
According to Morne Gijben from the South African Weather Service, there are, on average, between 65 and 67 thunderstorm days a year in Pretoria.
Fleming, a draughtsman, said he felt like he had been given a second chance at life. “I don't preach. I am not that guy. But when the lightning hit me and I was lying down, all I thought about was my family, my wife and God. I was so scared, I thought if I am going now (dying), where am I going?
“I don’t want to have that doubt again. It was an eye-opener for me. I am gonna go back to church.
“I have been given a second chance. It is not because of luck. It’s purely because of the grace of God. It’s my second chance – why not live for Him?”