Fatal Lightning Strike Remembered 21 Years Later

OCEAN CITY – Aug. 3 marked the 21st anniversary of an Ocean City tragedy that left four people dead and one beach stand operator injured. Twenty-one years later, the memory of that day holds strong for Drew Haugh.

“It was real sunny and the storm seemed to come out of nowhere. I had a group of people who came on a tour bus from Washington and they rented a bunch of umbrellas. I started to bring the umbrellas in and a bolt came out of nowhere. I’ve been in the business nine years and have never seen anything like it. It rocked me like I stuck my hand in a socket, but much stronger. I felt my legs buckle and I went down into the sand. I realized I had been hit by lightning.”

That’s what Drew Haugh told (ITALICS)The Dispatch 21 years ago to describe the lightning strike on the beach. Today, Haugh tells the exact same story like it was yesterday.

Haugh was enjoying a typical, sunny summer day on Aug. 3, 1986. With his wife, Laurie, sitting alongside him at his 2nd Street beach stand, he was enjoying a busy Sunday, setting up umbrellas and renting out chairs.

A tour bus had arrived earlier in the day, unloading a mass of people that rented out Haugh’s front line of about 20 umbrellas. Haugh learned that the group had traveled from northern Virginia and that most were originally from Ecuador. It was their first trip to Ocean City.

“The day couldn’t have been any nicer,” Haugh remembers.

Around 11 a.m., the weather took a dramatic turn, as the clouds rolled in and the rain began to pour down from the skies. The tour bus wasn’t due back until 6 p.m. so most of the group remained huddled under their umbrellas.

As the sky continued to unleash the rain, many ran for the cover of the hotels and businesses along the boardwalk. Haugh, his wife Laurie, and a friend remained huddled under their umbrellas as winds picked up and the rain increased. “We were getting soaked and we were freezing,” Haugh said.

With worsening conditions, Haugh decided to call it a day and collect his umbrellas. He rushed along the beach, taking soaked umbrellas in 10 at a time.

Haugh was picking up an umbrella next to a group of four people from the tour who were still huddled under their umbrella when he heard a sound that would ring in his ears for years to come. The sonic boom rattled Haugh’s eardrums as the sky lit up brilliantly.

“It felt like I had been punched in the chest, but harder than I’ve ever felt before,” said Haugh, who fell to the ground, reeling from the surge that had run through him.

Haugh jumped to his feet, panic stricken and confused, knowing only that he needed to get off the beach. He began sprinting up the beach, running past his wife and friend at his stand yelling, “I think I just got struck by lightning.”

His wife initially laughed it off, knowing that he husband was a bit of a jokester.

Haugh reached the Plim Plaza porch, shaking and unsure of what to do next. He looked down the beach and saw a gust of wind come out of nowhere and ravage the beach. The Coast Guard would later inform Haugh that wind gusts reached 50 mph that day. Haugh saw his remaining umbrellas fly vertically into the air, shooting 25 to 30 feet up before plummeting back to the soaked beach. “I had to try to do something,” Haugh said. He returned to the beach, desperate to gather the umbrellas flying dangerously along the beach.

As soon as he stepped foot into the wet sand, lifeguard Keith Thomas was waving him over. An umbrella was lying on top of a woman who was sitting in her chair. They rushed over to her to see if she was hurt.

As soon as Haugh saw the woman, he knew something was wrong. She was lying unconscious in the chair and appeared to have not been injured by the umbrella. He checked her pulse, nothing. The nightmare worsened as Haugh noticed three others lying unconscious in the sand. Haugh recognized them as the group sitting under their umbrella when he was struck; it was all beginning to make sense.

“I think they’ve been hit,” Haugh yelled to Thomas, explaining too had been hit minutes before. Thomas and Haugh immediately started CPR, hoping to beat the odds and revive the people. They worked to no avail, realizing that there was nothing they could do.

Fire trucks, ambulances, and police arrived in mass to the scene. Haugh remembers it as a “massive scene of craziness”. As the turmoil whirled around him, he finally began to grasp what had happened. As he realized that he, along with four others, had been struck by lightning and that only he had survived, the skies began to clear. The sun shone through once again, the wind calmed and the rain ceased to fall. The storm was over, but the nightmare was not.

Haugh was taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, the closest hospital in 1986, and monitored overnight. One of the other victims was revived and brought to the hospital, only to be declared brain dead later.

While in the hospital, the events became clear to Haugh. Lightning had struck the wet sand in front of the group and traveled to the four beach patrons. Haugh, who was only a few feet away, had received what they had not absorbed, essentially saving his life.

“I was the lucky one for whatever reason,” Haugh said.

Unfortunately, local news stations announced that Drew Haugh had perished on the beach, causing a great deal of confusion. Contrary to those reports, Haugh survived with minor injuries. Sonia Hernandez, 30, Jose Sontos Ortiz, 19, Delfin Cedillo, 20, and Leonidez Mejillas, 55, all died that day.

For Haugh, the day will never be forgotten, every Aug. 3 he remembers what he went through and looks apprehensively to the sky. Unfortunately, the 10-year anniversary of the lightning strike brought back the horror of that day.

On Aug. 3, 1996, Haugh was sitting at his beach stand as usual. Like that fateful day 10 years ago, a storm rolled in around noon.

“I had learned my lesson,” he said. Haugh was under the cover of the Plim Plaza porch in no time, safe from a storm that was to once again ravage the beach. As he watched the storm roll in, he heard the familiar sonic boom further north up the beach and saw the distinct flash of lightning. Haugh later found out that a lifeguard, Sergeant Mike Perry, had been struck by lightning. Perry had been clearing the beach when he was struck and knocked 90 feet off of his quad. He was pronounced dead at the scene but was later revived at Atlantic General Hospital.

Haugh couldn’t believe that someone had been stuck by lightning, killed, and brought back to life 10 years to the day that he himself had been struck.

Today, Haugh can still be found manning his beach stand all summer long. Although he has since moved further south to North Division Street, he still has many of the same loyal customers who were with him 21 years ago.

Haugh maintains that he had no long-term effects from being struck by lightning but joked that it gives him an excuse for his eccentric behavior and “out of the box” teaching style at Boys Latin. He has even named his volleyball team the Volts and adorned their uniforms with lightning bolts.

This year the anniversary passed with no incident, but with a storm that cleared the beach on Aug. 4, Haugh couldn’t help but feel the hair rise on the back of his neck as he remembered the storm that rolled in 21 years ago.