Spark Ranger: The Man Lightning Couldn’t Kill


The sound humans often associate with thunder is actually lightning. The booming claps are the result of air rapidly expanding as lightning heats it to nearly 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 90 percent of lightning actually occurs above our heads in the clouds, we only see the remaining 10 percent on their fraction-of-a-second journey to Earth. 

These are what meteorologists refer to as “cloud-to-ground strikes” and they generally measure up to five miles long and a couple of inches in diameter. A single bolt of lightning can produce one billion volts of electricity. Humans have died from a 42-volt shock to their system, which is part of the reason that Roy Sullivan’s story is so incredible. It’s not just that it happened, it’s also the fact that he survived. 

Most individuals struck by lightning experience some kind of indirect strike. Roy Sullivan, apparently experienced them all. Born February 7, 1912, Roy grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Greene County, Virginia. As a boy, he roamed its many ridges and hollows hunting for rabbits. An avid outdoorsman, he spent his twenties building Shenandoah National Park until it spanned 311 square-miles of protected land. 

Roy was by most accounts, ordinary, he just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, seven times. In 1942, 30-year-old Park Ranger, Roy Sullivan watched a thunderstorm barrel through Shenandoah Valley from the panoramic views of Miller’s Head Fire Tower. 

He was enjoying himself until seven or eight bolts of lightning hit the wooden shelter and the tower erupted into flames, Roy fled for his life, but his efforts were in vain. Just as he escaped from the firelit tower, another bolt of lightning struck him directly in his right leg. The impact of the strike seared the skin all down Sullivan’s leg.

According to the Washington Post, blood spurted from his foot, draining through a hole ripped in his boot sole. Roy would recover and for the next 27 years, he was a guy that had been struck by lightning. But that changed when in July 1969, 57-year-old Roy was driving his truck down Virginia’s Skyline Drive through a thunderstorm, when lightning suddenly hit a tree on one side of the road and jumped, a side flash passed through Roy’s window and knocked him unconscious at the wheel. He lived, but the flash seared off his eyebrows, eyelashes, and most of the hair on his arms. 

One year later, in 1970, lightning struck a transformer in Roy’s backyard and jumped again, this time is blasted his left shoulder and knocked him several feet into the air. In 1972, Sullivan was working at the park’s registration booth when he heard a loud thunder clap. 

In an instant, the 60-year-old man found himself engulfed in a painful white light. Roy’s scalp apparently caught fire with six-inch high flames. The next time he was struck by lightning, Roy was on patrol when he saw storm clouds form in the sky naturally at this point, he was terrified of storms so he hopped in his patrol car and drove, but according to Roy the clouds followed him. 

When Roy finally felt that it was safe enough to exit his car, lightning blasted him into the air again, this time knocking the shoes off his feet with the shoelaces still tied. On June 5, 1976, lighting struck the now-64-year-old Roy as he routinely checked on a campsite in the park. Supposedly, the sixth strike hit him just one mile from where he had been struck by the second bolt. Five months later, Roy retired from his service at the park. 

He packed up his things and took outdoors out of the equation. He and his wife Patricia moved to a small mobile home in Virginia. Naturally they littered their property with lightning rods, one on every corner of their home, one on the television antenna outside and several on numerous trees that were nearby the home. 

Despite the rods, lightning still found its way to Roy. On June 25, 1977, Roy started to smell Sulphur while he fished for trout in a pond near his house. Just as the hair on his arms eerily stood on end, lightning hit him again. This time sending Sullivan into the pond where he had been fishing. 

The blast also singed his hair, burnt holes in his clothes, and left his stomach and chest covered in burns. Afterwards, he lost hearing in one ear. This is said to be the last time that Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning, but it is said that he didn’t count the time that he was struck while helping his father cut wheat in a thunderstorm. When lightning struck the tool that young Roy was holding, then jumped from the tool onto the ground, and started a small fire.

On September 28, 1983, after 41 years of being the victim of chance and circumstance, 71-year-old, Roy Cleveland Sullivan took his own life in Augusta County, Virginia. Today, Mr. Sullivan’s disturbingly mysterious and incredible life is remembered by many in the Guinness Book of World Records

Roy was either the luckiest or the unluckiest man in the world, depending on how you look at it, but he definitely lived a life unlike any other.

(Picture: Washington Post)