COLTS NECK — Two people and six horses were knocked unconscious Sunday after lightning struck a horse trailer they were working near at Bucks Mills Park. Both men, as well as the horses, were recovering and in good condition.
Polo umpire John Conroy was preparing to load horses into the trailer, after the match had been cancelled and players ordered off the field, because of lightning strikes and rain. A bolt of lightning struck the trailer, knocking Conroy and another poloist unconscious:
Conroy said he opened his eyes and saw Kriegee on the ground near him. Realizing he could not move his body, Conroy said he became worried that he might be trampled by the horses when regaining consciousness.
Conroy said the horses, which were being held up at the neck by ropes, were knocked down, each falling on top of the horse in front of it.
“It looked like a domino effect,” he said.
Slowly, as his ability to move returned, he tried dragging himself away from the horses, he said. He said he had no use of his left arm at all. It had been broken, doctors at CentraState later confirmed, he said.
Other tests — including an electrocardiogram and a CT scan — found that his heart and other organs were working properly despite the flow of electricity through them, he said.
I started learning to play polo when I lived in North Texas, and our games and practice sessions were frequently interrupted by lightning and thunderstorms. There is a myth among some equestrians that “horses attract lightning”, but of course the risk arises instead from being the highest target in an open area (a 300 x 150 yard field, in the case of polo). Horses and other livestock are vulnerable to being struck by lightning not because they attract it in some mysterious thaumaturgic manner, but rather because they are out grazing in open fields and paddocks. A 1907 weather report describes ball lightning striking a cart-horse outside a coal and ice company, knocking the animal flat, but not killing it (Alexander, 1907). Standing next to a large aluminum stock trailer was risky for both humans and horses at the Colts Neck polo club, and all were fortunate to have not been killed or seriously injured by the lightning bolt.
So what are some of the characteristic injuries caused by lightning strikes? In a recent article, Ritenour and colleagues described cardiopulmonary, skin, muscle, and nervous system consequences from close encounters with lightning, 10-30% of which result in death, and three-quarters of which have long-term effects for the victim. The most disabling and deadly injuries occur in the cardiovascular and nervous systems, with asystolic cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation, followed by respiratory arrest, as the primary cause of death. Lightning can also cause massive system-wide catecholamine release, followed by hypertension and rapid heart rate, as well as blunt trauma to the myocardium, and lysis of these heart muscle cells.
Central nervous system effects are very common following lightning strike, and may include loss of consciousness, as happened to the two polo players and their horses, as well as confusion, amnesia, headaches, and transient paralysis. Later, the victim may experience intracranial hemorrhage, ischemic neuropathy, motor neuron disorders, fatigue, memory deficits, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals who are injured by lightning while using the phone (yes, your parents were right!) are particularly susceptible to tympanic membrane rupture and sensorineural deafness. In the eyes, a common consequence is the “lightning cataract”; optic nerve damage, corneal burns, and orbital fractures have also been reported.
Skin lesions caused by lightning, though not deadly, are pretty dramatic, as demonstrated by the keraunographic marking (Lichtenberg figure) shown in the photo above (Ritenour, 2008 ). Linear, punctate, “feathering”, and thermal are the four categories of skin injuries that can be caused by lightning. Most of these burns are superficial, and do not require skin grafts. When I worked as an office assistant for a pediatrician, I remember a patient who had been struck by lightning and revived quickly by a neighbor-the young boy had punctate burns on his scalp, and on the soles of his feet. I think I have a healthy respect for lightning and a weather eye for the movement of thunderstorms, from my years of lifeguarding at an outdoor pool, and I’ll be especially aware of the danger near my aluminum stock trailer from now on.
Alexander, W.H. (1907) A possible case of ball lightning. Monthly Weather Review, July, 310-311.
RITENOUR, A., MORTON, M., MCMANUS, J., BARILLO, D., CANCIO, L. (2008). Lightning injury: A reviewâ˜†. Burns, 34(5), 585-594. DOI: 10.1016/j.burns.2007.11.006