When lightning strikes, it can have serious consequences; loss of life, damage to property and the disruption of day-to-day life and services.
Stockpile of Ammunition
The worst lightning strike disaster ever recorded occurred in the summer of 1807, when lightning struck a gunpowder factory in Luxembourg. The French army occupied Luxembourg – during the Napoleonic wars of 1803 to 1815.
Luxembourg had become a dumping ground – stockpiled with weapons and ammunition. In the city of Kirchberg, a fortress dating from 1732 was being used as an armoury. On June 26, lightning struck the fortress and the ammunition burst into flames on contact, causing a massive explosion.
The blast and the raging fire completely destroyed two blocks, igniting other fires in adjacent properties and causing the deaths of more than 300 people. At the time, the London Times reported how Kirchberg had been “plunged into distress” by the natural disaster.
Taking into account that lightning strikes kill 73 people annually in the USA, normally in individual incidents, the Luxembourg disaster is the most devastating strike in history.
In modern times, the worst lightning strike disaster in terms of death toll occurred on Christmas Eve 1971, when a bolt of lightning hit the Peruvian airline LANSA’s Flight 508 as it flew over the Amazon rainforest. The plane plummeted to the ground from a height of 3km, killing 91 people.
The sole survivor was 17-year old German passenger, Juliane Koepcke. A student of zoology in Lima, Peru, she began walking through the rainforest to seek help. Her biologist father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, had taught her to track a water source to find settlements. His advice saved her life, as she found a cabin and canoe belonging to lumberjacks, who took her to safety. She was reunited with her father and later recovered in hospital in Pucallpa. Sadly, her mother, ornithologist Maria Koepcke, was killed in the plane crash. Juliane’s story was made into a feature film, Wings of Hope, in 2000.
Wild Deer Killed
In August 2016, some 320 reindeer, including 70 calves, were killed by a lightning strike in Norway. The Norwegian Environment Agency described it as “one of the deadliest lightning strikes” ever witnessed in the country.
Haunting images of the dead animals appeared on international news sites after the bodies were discovered in the Hardanangervidda plateau. The mountainous region is home to Norway’s largest national park, with a population of around 11,000 wild deer. Although there had been previous incidents, nothing of this scale had ever been experienced before.
The Norwegian Environment Agency said although it wasn’t uncommon to see individual animals killed by lightning or even groups of up to 20 sheep, they had never before seen anything of this magnitude. Experts believe it may have occurred because animals tend to huddle closely together during thunderstorms. This would have made it easy for the lightning to pass through their bodies simultaneously, killing them all instantly.