A Hood River man was struck with lightning Sunday while taking photos on Ehrck Hill, near the community of Odell.
Jason Smith was at his sister Heather Muma’s house, taking pictures of the storm when the incident occurred. Lightning struck a nearby tree and traveled through the ground, electrocuting both Smith and his truck, which was parked next to him.
Smith said he had been struggling to get good pictures of the storm and had actually wished it was closer.
“I literally said out loud, ‘I wish it was closer,’ and eight or nine seconds later, everything blew up,” he said.
Smith said that, more than anything, the strike was disorienting. There was a flash of white light and then he went flying sideways.
Muma was on the porch watching when the lightning hit and it was terrifying, she said. She watched it strike the tree and watched her brother fall to the ground.
“When it hit the tree, the tree just shattered,” she said. “He went down and he was ducking because stuff was falling out of the tree. I actually thought the tree was going to fall on him.”
Smith thought so too, hearing bits of the tree falling next to him, and was trying to get up and get out of the way, he said, but his legs wouldn’t work.
“I was paralyzed from the waist down,” he said. “So I’m like crawling, dragging myself, and I kept getting shocked for a few seconds after the initial boom … Every time I picked my hand up I was getting shocked over and over and over again. I was getting pretty pissed.”
What Smith experienced is what’s known as ground current, which is the most common and deadliest type of lightning strike.
According to the National Weather Service, ground current is when lightning strikes an object, travels through it and then discharges through the ground. When a person is in this discharge area, the lightning travels through them via any contact points they have with the ground, most often the feet. The closer the contact points are to one another, the less chance there is of severe injury or death.
When Smith was moving away from the site of the strike, he was making new contact points and changing the distance between them, which was causing the shock to re-enter his body at varying levels.
Muma said it was hard to watch him struggle and feel like she couldn’t do anything to help.
“Every time he touched the ground, it shocked him again,” she said. “It shocked him I don’t know how many times.”
Smith said he saw Muma on the front porch and could see her yelling his name but couldn’t hear her. He figures he went deaf for a few seconds because of the strike. Even so, seeing his sister caused him to change direction and start dragging himself toward her, which Muma also described as hard to watch.
“His legs couldn’t move, it was like a wet noodle,” she said.
Smith said that halfway to the porch, after about 20 or 30 feet, he was finally able to get his feet under him. He stumbled to the porch, continuously falling and managing to climb back up.
Despite having just been struck by lightning, Smith was worried about everyone and everything else, Muma said. He was worried the tree would catch on fire and subsequently set the house on fire, while she was just worried about him.
“‘To hell with the tree, to hell with the house, I’m concerned about you. I don’t care about anything else,’” she said.
Additionally, the strike also affected Smith’s truck, Muma said. Its horn started going off when the lightning struck and smoke was billowing out from beneath it. After a moment of catching his breath on the porch, Smith put on a pair of rubber boots he uses for yard work and went back out to stop the electrical fire.
Smith cut the battery cables and successfully put out the fire, but the truck was fried by then, he said.
“All the wires, all the electronics, everything in it was screwed,” he said.
Smith also said his brand new four-wheeler was in the back of the truck when it happened, and now it’s messed up too.
“And because I’m real smart I lowered my insurance recently,” Smith said. “So guess what’s not going to cover it. Really saving money now, aren’t I?”
Muma called 911, and after Smith had finished fixing his truck, the paramedics showed up.
“Four or so departments showed up,” Smith said. “Good grief, there must’ve been 15 or so vehicles in the front yard.”
The EMTs examined Smith and said he was OK, but they advised going to the emergency room anyway, which he begrudgingly did, he said.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Smith was cracking jokes and found time to write a Facebook post on the matter, Muma said.
Another sister of Smith’s, Jody Lamoreaux, said the post was how she found out what happened. She said she was alarmed, but was glad to see he was continuing to make jokes and find the positives in the situation.
“He throws humor into everything,” Lamoreaux said. “You know, he was (82nd Airborne) and he just carries that with him. Very tough guy, and he’s got quite the sense of humor to go with it.”
A day later, Smith said he felt better, though he spent most of the day sleeping it off. He said he suffered no burns, but his legs felt severely cramped and he had a "monster headache," as if he’d hiked too many miles.
Despite the ordeal, Smith said he would go take pictures of a storm again.
“Why not?” he said. “I mean, what are the odds of it happening twice, right? I’ve already checked off that block so I’m good now, right?”
One of Smith’s biggest regrets from the night is that he was unable to buy a lottery ticket because everything was closed. He figures if he was "lucky" enough to be struck by lightning, then the lottery would’ve been a piece of cake.
Muma said that though the situation was terrifying and not at all funny at the time, she’s glad they can laugh about it now.
“Leave it to my brother. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen to him,” she said.
The original article cited Jason Smith as a member in the 101st Airborne Division. Smith reached out to clarify that, in fact, he had been a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. Columbia Gorge News regrets this error.