OCEAN CITY – A 911 call last Sunday afternoon about a boat off the coast of Ocean City struck by lightning and on fire with occupants jumping in the water turned out to be untrue, but the report did lead to a man on the beach and his family claiming to have been struck.
The bizarre incident began to unfold around 12:15 p.m. last Sunday when a 911 call came in from a woman at the Belmont Towers that a boat had been struck by lightning and was on fire with several occupants jumping into the water. Ocean City Fire and Emergency Services and paramedics responded to the area but no evidence of the reported incident was found.
However, while on the scene, an Ocean City paramedic was approached by a family who told him they believed they had been struck by lightning while on the beach. According to Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin, family members told the paramedic they had been shocked by the lightning strike on the beach and that one member, the father, had been carrying a metal pole to a canopy when the strike occurred and the shock sent him to the ground and shaking.
“They apparently just walked up to the paramedic casually and told him they had been struck by lightning,” he said. “Imagine his amazement that this group of people just walked up to him and said they had been struck.”
The paramedic examined the man, who had apparently recovered and found no evidence of a direct lightning strike including no burns, entry wounds or exit wounds. Other family members were checked out with similar results. Arbin said the family at first refused treatment or transportation to the hospital, but the paramedic urged at least the father to get checked out because electric shocks can cause irregularities in heartbeats and other injuries not immediately evident. The paramedic was ultimately able to convince the victim to go to the hospital to get checked out and he was treated and released a short time later.
When the 911 call came in about the boat being struck by lightning, the beach patrol cleared the beach in the downtown area, but it is uncertain just when the lightning struck that shocked the family. Arbin said the beach patrol closely monitors the weather forecasts and radar and typically clears the water and the beach in advance of any encroaching storm.
“As soon as we hear thunder or see the first flash of lightning no matter how far away, each crew chief makes a decision about clearing the beach,” he said. “In this case, the decision was made to clear the beach at the south end of town. They will first blow their whistles and point to the sky, and then they will run through the crowd and warn people to clear off the beach and seek shelter. When they have done all that, they will seek shelter for themselves.”
Arbin said the beach patrol most often errs on the side of caution, which can lead to circumstances where people don’t want to leave the beach. He pointed out one example when two girls were walking on a stone jetty when the beach was cleared because of lightning and they said “we’re okay, we’re just walking” as if they were immune to getting struck by lightning. In another example, a man told Arbin during a storm he was just going to run out to the beach to get his stuff and that he would be real quick.
“I said to him ‘how quick to do you think lightning is?’” he said. “In another incident, I was standing on the beach talking to an adult holding a 2-year-old child and he was arguing with me about leaving the beach.”
Arbin said a lesson to be learned from Sunday’s incident is to heed the warnings of the beach patrol to clear the beach, even if there is not immediate danger evident.
“We warn people but they don’t always want to listen because the sky looks clear and there hasn’t been any thunder, but they have to trust us because we have so much data and so many resources we rely on,” he said. “Don’t go running back out there for a $10 umbrella or chair because it’s not worth risking your life.”