Lightning strikes KU student

Salina senior in fair condition after incident

The awesome power of a lightning strike shredded her clothing and hurled her to the ground, but a Kansas University senior miraculously escaped serious injury Thursday afternoon when she was struck while walking near Potter Lake.

Traci Pillard, a 21-year-old communications studies student from Salina, apparently was hit by a lightning bolt that also hit a large sycamore tree. She never lost consciousness.

Pillard was taken by air ambulance to KU Med in Kansas City, Kan., where she was listed in fair condition Thursday night.

According to the National Weather Service, the storm that produced the bolt shortly after noon wasn’t severe. But it seemed plenty powerful to at least one witness.

Nicole Howard, a St. Francis sophomore, was walking 20 or 30 feet behind Pillard when the lightning struck.

Lawrence Fire & Medical personnel attend to Traci Pillard, a Salina senior at Kansas University. Pillard was struck by lightning shortly after noon Thursday near Potter Lake while walking home from her first day of classes. She was in fair condition Thursday night at KU Med in Kansas City, Kan.

“It was huge,” she said. “It was a white burst. The bark was flying everywhere.”

When the bark settled, Howard saw Pillard face down on the sidewalk.

“She was completely awake,” Howard said. “She was pretty frightened. Who wouldn’t be?”

Howard said the blast fried Pillard’s watch. It also shredded her shirt and turned her jeans into frayed jean shorts.

First time at KU?

Pillard declined an interview request from the Journal-World, saying she wanted to let people know she was OK but didn’t want any more publicity from the incident.

Hospital officials said she would be kept Thursday night but couldn’t say when she would be discharged.

Precautions help prevent injury when lightning strikesHere are some facts to remember about lightning:A thunderstorm is dangerously close when there is less than a 10-second pause between a lightning flash and the sound of thunder. Take cover.A car provides excellent protection. A carport, open garage or covered patio do not.Places to avoid: under or close to trees, sheds, picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, bleachers or open fields.If you can’t reach shelter, crouch in the open, keeping twice as far away from a tree as it is tall.Indoors during a lightning storm, stay away from telephone, plumbing and electric wiring.

Curtis Hall, an instructor in physics and astronomy at KU, said it was possible Pillard was standing close enough to be hit by the same blast that hit the tree. Or, he said, the lightning may have struck the tree and traveled through the ground to hit Pillard.

Lt. Schuyler Bailey of KU Public Safety said that based on witness reports, it sounded as if the lightning traveled through the air and hit the umbrella Pillard was carrying.

He said no one at KU Public Safety could remember another student being struck by lightning on campus.

Dr. Pam McCoy, an emergency room physician at KU Med, said the hospital usually treated about one lightning strike victim each year. Their results range from minor injuries to death.

“It can do anything from literally exploding your eyes and brain to give you something like a sunburn,” she said.

Medical personnel attend to Traci Pillard, a Salina senior at Kansas University, who was struck by lightning. The scarred sycamore tree in the foreground also was hit Thursday. Pillard was in fair condition Thursday night at KU Med in Kansas City, Kan.

McCoy said the severity of injuries suffered depended on whether the electricity passed through the victim’s body or just traveled along the outside.

Deadly phenomenon

Whether it travels through a body often depends on the “whims of the lightning,” she said. Lightning is more likely to stay outside a body if the person is wearing wet clothes or has metal on the outside of their body, such as keys or a watch. Both water and metal conduct electricity.

Matt Wolters, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Topeka, said Kansas averaged one death from lightning each year. Nationwide, he said, lightning kills about 80 people each year and injures another 300.

“We try to tell people lightning is a killer,” he said. “We can’t issue weather warning for lightning. It’s so random and frequent.”

The storms that ripped through Lawrence around noon Thursday dropped up to 0.25 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Bruce Stucky reported 0.15 inches in the Prairie Park area of southeast Lawrence. Kenneth Blair recorded 0.20 inches in central Lawrence. Curt Zesig registered 0.07 inches in northwest Lawrence.

Though Pillard apparently suffered only minor injuries, the tree’s fate remains unknown.

“The tree took the brunt of the hit,” Bailey said.

Doug Riat, director of facilities operations, said he did not have a chance to look at the tree or determine its future.

Still, the strike was enough to make Howard, the witness, take lightning more seriously.

“I’m not going to walk through the rain anymore,” she said. “I thought it was so refreshing. Now I don’t think so.”

Bailey, of KU’s public safety office, had this observation: “That’s a heckuva way to get started on the first day of classes.”