"The policy of the GUHSD in thunder/lightning storm conditions would be to immediately seek safe shelter at the first sound of thunder." -- Larry Pear, Grossmont Union High School District
ECM Special Report
Story by Miriam Raftery, photos by Dennis Richardson
July 16, 2010 (Lakeside)—While lightning strikes caused multiple fires in East County including Lakeside, El Capitan’s football team continued practicing on an open field during a thunderstorm in direct violation of district rules.
“There was thunder and lightning in the immediate area striking the ground...during the time the kids were practicing,” ECM photographer Dennis Richardson reports. “As I was shooting pictures of the players [from a hill nearby], a man who was watching the lightning storm from the safety of his home near me told me he had just seen a bolt of lightning hit a power pole near Wildcat Canyon and Willow Road.” That’s about half a mile from the football practice, he estimated.
Playing sports during a thunderstorm can be deadly. In 2008, all eleven players on a football team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were killed when lightning struck the field.
A You-Tube video shot moments after the strike reveals players writhing in pain. (Miraculously, no players on the opposing team were harmed, leading to accusations in the superstition-laden region of witchcraft or spells.)
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service office in San Diego, from 3:30 to 5:30 during Thursday's practice there were nine lightning strikes within five miles of downtown Lakeside, including five strikes within one and a half miles of Lakeside's downtown. The field is less than a mile from downtown Lakeside.
Our media partner, Channel 10 News, attempted to interview coach David Garcia. Garcia did not want to go on camera, but told 10News he believed the thunder was far enough away. He said it was on the other side of mountains a good distance from the school and if he thought there was a danger he would have taken his players off the field.
Garcia would not respond when 10News asked him about the district policy of getting students out of harm's way regardless. The 10News reporter also quoted a player who confirmed that lighting was visible during the rain-soaked practice.
Richardson contacted Larry Pear, director of extended and co-curricular activities at the Grossmont Union High School District, to inform him of the incident. Pear promptly took action, sending the following response.
“The school in question has been called and a written message has gone out to all coaches at the school. I have also contacted all our other schools reminding them of the dangers and the necessary precautions they must take in the event of any severe weather conditions," Pear assured ECM in an e-mail. "The policy of the GUHSD in thunder/lightning storm conditions would be to immediately seek safe shelter at the first sound of thunder and to remain in said shelter until at least ½ hour after the last sound of thunder…I thank you for your call alerting me to what you observed at El Capitan yesterday.”
Broward school district in Florida faced a lawsuit after a junior varsity football player at Monarch High School was struck in the chest and killed by lightning moments after a game was ended due to severe weather. The district had ordered 30 portable weather radios for its high schools to get updates from the National Weather Service, but had not yet installed them when the tragedy occurred.
Since 1997, the National Collegiate Athletic Association coach and sports medicine handbook provides guidelines for canceling games and practices when lightning threatens. Many professional and collegiate games, including televised events, are routinely canceled when lightning threatens. The guide also advises players who feel their lives could be in danger that coaches should not punish them for evacuating the field.
Richardson indicated the coaches should have had ample warning to get players to safety. "They were on the field from 3:30 to 5:30 and were released to the parking lot at 5:30 pm to waiting parents ready to pick them up. The coach was still standing near the field, when he told me he thought the kids were safe, just as a clap of thunder roared over our heads," he said.
Even more shocking, the coach had kept the players practicing even though "there was a lightning strike on an electric pole less than one-half mile from the field...while the kids were practicing," Richardson observed.
Lightning strikes ignited fires across East County late yesterday, including blazes near Warner Springs, Julian, Campo, and Alpine. (Fires in Lakeside were not found to be lightning caused, according to Lakeside Fire Chief Andy Parr. Parr indicated that his own daughter, a swimmer on Grossmont's swim team, was evacuated from the pool at her school during the storm.)
Lightning kills an average of 73 people each year in the United States and injures hundreds more, many of whom suffer severe and permanent disabilities. Lightning is the second cause of storm-related deaths after flooding.
According to the National Weather Service, almost all lightning will occur within 10 miles of its parent thunderstorm, but it CAN strike much farther than that. Lightning detection equipment has confirmed bolts striking almost 50 miles away, but these are very rare.
The National Weather Service has created a Lightning Safety Awareness Toolkit titled “When Thunder Roars Go Indoors” and urges counties to implement the program by educating personnel at schools, recreation centers, parks, community colleges, pools, concert facilities, sports clubs, golf courses, and other public facilities. As soon as the sky appears threatening, the NWS advises taking cover, since the first lightning strike from a thunderstorm can be deadly. Don’t wait for rain or lightning striking to postpone outdoor activities.
For more information, visit http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/toolkit.htm.