Boy scouts

Cub Master Blair Bishop addresses his pack shortly before a lightning strike sent two, including District Court Judge Roy Wijewickrama, to the hospital.

By Kyle Perrotti, WNC News Share


The odds of getting struck by lightning in any given year are about 1 in 700,000.

And yet, Saturday, in the parking lot of the Balsam Mountain Campground between Maggie Valley and Cherokee, that’s what happened. 

District Court Judge Roy Wijewickrama was one of two people transported to the hospital after being struck by lightning.

Eleven Cub Scouts and 12 parents were camping in the area, and as some were in the parking lot preparing to depart, lightning struck in the area of the vehicles and a group of people. The vehicles sustained damage and there were some minor injuries in addition to those hospitalized.

One woman, a mother of one of the boys, had minor injuries and is already at home recovering, but Wijewickrama had to be transported to Mission Hospital, where he was placed in the intensive care unit.

Eight-year-old scout Alex Ostendorff recalled seeing the lightning from his parents’ vehicle.

“When the lightning struck, it was more like an explosion than a bolt … and then there was a lot of steam,” he said. “It looked like a bomb went off. After it struck, it kind of put our car up on two wheels.”

Dave Crowder and Cubmaster Blair Bishop were in Bishop’s truck when the lightning struck. Crowder, a Marine Corps veteran, said the sound and the flash of light was akin to a mortar round exploding. Bishop agreed, adding that it arced over the top of the truck.

“The frame is bent where the lightning hit my truck … and the tires were melted in places,” he said. “It appeared that it blew the asphalt out of the ground.”

Crowder saw the sheer power of the bolt another way.

“Her umbrella, part of it was just vaporized,” he said of the mother who was injured.

Once Crowder noticed Wijewickrama and the mother had been hit, his instincts kicked in, he said. He saw the mother come to her feet under her own power, and went to apply first aid to Wijewickrama.

“I went to check Roy’s pulse, and his jacket was wrapped around his neck so I cut that off,” he said. “He started talking, so obviously he was breathing. Then we got him up on his feet.”

As serious as Wijewickrama’s injuries appeared initially, they could have been much worse.

According to National Geographic, lightning can raise the air temperature up to 50,000 Fahrenheit and can contain 100 million volts of electricity. But when it comes to electrical energy and the damage it can do, what really matters is current and the path that current travels. In parking lots such as the one at the campground, current travels easily through wire mesh, rebar and even water that sits underneath the blacktop.

Cell reception in the remote Heintooga area is spotty, so it was quicker for the group to evacuate the victims themselves than to call an ambulance and wait.

Within minutes, Bishop was driving Wijewickrama to the Haywood Regional Medical Center in Crowder’s truck. Once he had cell reception, Crowder called the hospital to let them know they would be receiving two victims injured in the lightning strike. Wijewickrama was transferred to Mission Hospital, where he is still being held.

Both are expected to recover.

Bishop and Crowder both said they’re happy that the injuries aren’t life threatening, and they know things could have been worse. Bishop said the incident serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change in the mountains.

“It was bluebird skies and clear before,” he said. “It speaks to this place, its inherent beauty and the sheer ruggedness of it all together. We’re planning another trip for them that will focus on them rebounding from the situation.”

Wijewickrama is a district court judge for the 30th Judicial District, which presides over Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. He was first elected to the court in 2010.