Lightning kills three at funeral

The funeral was just beginning under a stormy sky Friday morning in rural southwest Missouri. Four mourners huddled under a tree, sharing one umbrella between them.

Charles Turk was watching from across the road, sitting in his truck, when there was a flash of lightning.

“All at once,” Turk said, “there was a ball of fire that appeared at the base of the tree. Four people just fell over. I couldn’t believe it.”

Three of them were fatally injured. As identified by news services, the fatalities were: Leroy Hendrix, 82; Billy J. Burgess, 66; and Joretta Gray, 71, all of Springfield. Gray’s husband, Junior, 70, was in critical condition late Friday at St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield.

The four were among about 40 people attending a funeral for Leon L. Carroll, 83, of Bois D’Arc. The services were at Clear Creek Cemetery near Willard, Mo., about 10 miles northwest of Springfield.

A storm moved through about 10 a.m., just as the open-casket services were beginning, Turk said. It wasn’t a particularly severe storm; there wasn’t a lot of lightning. Earlier in the morning, he even thought the storm would go around them, he said.

Turk, 62, and his son, Chris, who live across the road from the cemetery, had just returned from their farm when the lightning struck.

“There was this boom,” he said. “It sounded like a bomb went off. … I slammed the brakes on the truck. We jumped out and ran up there.”

They found the four victims collapsed under the tree.

“Their clothes were just in rags,” Turk said. “They were blown out at different locations of the body. One dear lady, her clothes were just nothing but threads.”

Turk said it appeared the lightning had struck the umbrella they were sharing. It was blown apart, and one man’s hand was badly burned, he said.

Chris Turk, a former state trooper, began performing CPR on the victims. Charles Turk called 911 from his son’s cell phone, then ran to nearby Tatum Chapel Baptist Church to get Pastor Darryl Walker, a former firefighter who also knew CPR.

Within a few minutes, Turk said, paramedics arrived and took the four victims to Springfield hospitals. Turk said he tried to coax the rest of the mourners out of the rain and into their cars.

“People were just walking around in shock,” he said. “Some people were screaming. But there was just disbelief. They were just kind of wandering.”

The Greene County coroner’s office said Hendrix and Burgess were pronounced dead on arrival at Cox Medical Center North in Springfield, shortly after 11 a.m. Joretta Gray died a few hours later at St. John’s.

Turk said Burgess was a neighbor “a fine old gentleman who lives around the corner,” who had lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease about 18 months ago.

In all the chaos, Turk said, he didn’t even recognize Burgess.

“The way I’ve always seen him,” Turk said, “it was hard to see him the way I saw him there.”

Friday evening, Turk said he was still in disbelief.

“Never in my life have I seen anything like this,” he said. “I hope I never do again.”