When Paul Beaupre left his house July 3 he thought it was just a routine trip to the airport to pick up his son, Ryan. Never mind the growing storm. But Mother Nature had other plans.
As the plane approached the Tetons, driving rain and intermittent lightning forced a detour of the flight to Salt Lake City just a few minutes before it was scheduled to land at the airport in Grand Teton National Park. So Beaupre left the terminal to get his car and head home.
Walking across the rain-drenched parking lot, Beaupre had an encounter with nature that American adults have just a 1-in-5,000 chance of experiencing.
“I saw a big flash of light,” he said. “The next thing I knew I woke up face-planted on the asphalt.”
Being struck by lightning isn’t something most people expect in any circumstance, but it’s even less anticipated in the parking lot at Jackson Hole Airport. Most stories about people being struck, not to mention the warnings from rescue professionals, are about people who are out in the mountains, where thunderstorms can gather quickly and create dangerous situations.
But Beaupre’s experience is a reminder that lightning can find you anywhere, even if the strikes don’t seem close.
“I’d heard thunder and seen lightning, but nothing close,” he said.
Beaupre said he was the only person in the parking lot when he was struck. His car was parked out of view of the main doors, so he doesn’t think anyone saw the event.
“I got up and no one came to help me,” he said, “which leads me to believe I wasn’t unconscious for very long.”
Against the orders of probably every doctor anywhere, he shook off the experience, got in his car to drive the few minutes back to his house south of the airport. Looking in the rearview mirror he saw he had several injuries, but he thought they weren’t too serious.
Beaupre is a medical doctor and CEO of St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson. He did what any stubborn doctor might do: He waited nearly two days to go to the emergency room, choosing instead to hang out with relatives visiting for the Fourth of July holiday.
“I went home and saw the family,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t dying, and that I would see how it went.”
The answer: not well. The pain he felt in his face, evidenced by a pair of black eyes and other bruising, didn’t go away, and he found it painful to take a breath. Finally, he went to the hospital July 5, where he got “the obligatory lecture” from the emergency room doctors and found he had a broken nose and jaw and three broken ribs.
His troponin levels ruled out that he had a heart attack, which is a common occurrence after being struck by lightning. The doctors were able to infer he had indeed been struck because his creatine-kinase levels were “through the roof,” at amounts attributable to muscle necrosis or lightning strikes.
In a situation like Beaupre’s, when lightning is visible in the distance, the National Weather Service recommends seeking shelter because lighting can strike up to 3 miles from a storm, and “bolts from the blue,” or strikes from a clear sky, can travel up to 15 miles from a storm.
Beaupre being struck is perhaps the first reported lightning strike in Jackson Hole since July 2010, when 17 climbers near the summit of the Grand Teton were injured in a lightning storm, including one who fell 2,000 feet and died. That incident epitomizes the danger of lightning storms in the mountains, but Mountain Weather meteorologist Jim Woodmencey, who has followed the weather and been a climbing ranger for decades in Jackson, remembers a couple of lower-elevation strikes as well.
“A long time ago, there was a kid struck in the Gros Ventre,” he said. “They weren’t on top of a mountain, just out camping.”
Both Woodmencey and Rich Baerwald, a Jenny Lake ranger who has worked in Grand Teton National Park for three decades, remembered an incident in the ’80s in which a family was struck near the valley floor.
“One of my first responses, there were these people huddled under a tree at Inspiration Point,” Baerwald said. “It came out of the roots of the tree.”
Woodmencey said the people didn’t even know they were near the roots, which were buried. The tree took a direct strike and conducted electricity out in a circle, throwing them “maybe 15 feet” into the air. The soil was pushed up where the current ran through the roots after the strike.
Lightning strikes the United States about 25 million times each year, according to the National Weather Service, but a person’s chance of being struck is relatively low and the survival rate relatively high. National Geographic puts the number of people struck in the U.S. at around 2,000, and the Weather Service says the average number of fatalities in the country is 47 a year, though many who survive are severely injured.
Beaupre’s injuries seem to be more from the trauma of hitting the ground than from the strike itself. Woodmencey estimated that Beaupre was within 50 feet of the strike itself and took a side splash from where the bolt hit near him.
“A lightning bolt has about the same force as a hand grenade,” he said. “Within 50 feet, you’re going to get hurt. Within 25 feet, you’re usually dead or very lucky.”
The Weather Service lists some of the short-term symptoms that can follow a strike as “muscle soreness, headache, nausea, stomach upset and other post-concussion types of symptoms,” among other things. Long-term neurological symptoms can include “problems multitasking, slower reaction time, distractibility, irritability and personality change, and chronic pain from nerve injury.”
Beaupre said he hopes he has escaped the worst effects. He returned to work just a few days after the strike. He said some of the pain has subsided, and he has been feeling well enough just a couple of weeks later to get outside.
“I went on a 9-mile hike this weekend,” he said Monday.
As a professional rescuer, Woodmencey stressed that although Beaupre sustained some injuries, he was lucky, all things considered. And he said the incident is a reminder of one important fact about lightning strikes.
Woodmencey warned: “The ones you see before aren’t the ones that hurt you.”