70 years later, lightning strike survivor recalls tragic event

·8 min read

Double lightning. (Getty Images)

Despite a previous effort to have it removed, a simple monument of cement and stone sits in Darby Canyon near Driggs, Idaho, bearing the names of the five victims who were killed in the area from a lightning strike 70 years ago.

Karma Rasband Lambert, now 84, had helped to build it back during 1951, in memory of the friends she had been next to when the lightning struck.

It had been a rainy morning on Aug. 1, 1951, when a group from a girls' camp had set out on a hike in Darby Canyon, near Driggs, Idaho. The weather nearly caused the leaders to call off the hike before the sun shined through the clouds. The leaders took it as a green light, so they pushed onward.

Karma Lambert, 14 years old at the time, had been itching to go hiking with the group for over a year. She had attended the girl's camp, sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the previous summer, but had been too young to go on the trail that the group would be tackling. That summer, however, the leaders had chosen a route they thought would be easier and would allow the younger campers to join -- a walk up to the wind caves followed by lunch and then a viewing of the ice caves.

Joining her on her trip would be her two classmates, Carol Engstrom and Bernice Malone, along with Merry Dee Severson, a girl who had just moved into the area.

"[Carol] was the life of every party, and then her good friend [Bernice] was almost the same way," Lambert recounted to AccuWeather on the 70th anniversary of the incident.

Betty Kerney would also join them on the hike, along with Ora Holtz, a camp leader. Lambert recalled another leader approaching Holtz on the morning of the hike, saying she didn't think that Holtz had planned on going. Lambert's camp leader responded that she had three girls in her group who were going, so she thought she should go as well.

"Now she could have said she had eight girls left behind, but I guess she thought that maybe we needed her support," Lambert said.

The first few miles of the hike were relatively easy. It was a forest service road, and the group was able to make it to the caves before lunch.

"And as we came to where the wind caves were, we put our lunches -- Carol, Bernice, myself and Ora my leader, and Merry Dee put our lunches under this tall Aspen Pine," Lambert said.

It was raining when they returned from exploring the cave, she recalled. Engstrom and Malone had raced ahead back to the tree where they had set their lunches. Lambert, along with two other girls and Holt, would join them, though her own memory of that morning ends around that time.

"And that's the last thing I remember was coming out of the caves, going down where our lunches were under this tree," Lambert said.

In a moment that Lambert said might have been "apocryphal," their guide, Fred Miller, reportedly called for them to get out from under the tree because it could get struck by lightning.

It was shortly after the warning when lightning struck.

"The next thing I remember was five hours later being carried down the mountain on a made-up stretcher of pine logs and blankets."

Of the six girls who had been near the tree, Lambert was the only one to survive. She and eight other girls had been injured, though her conditions were deemed the most severe.

The metal flashlight that she had been carrying in her pocket had burned her hip, and her nylon underwear had melted into clumps from the lightning strike. The soles of her size-nine shoes had been torn off, hanging on by the heels. According to the reports, it's believed that the other five girls had been sitting while Lambert had been standing.

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A few of the girls ran back to the camp headquarters, seeking help as Miller and some of the older girls applied "artificial respiration," to the victims, Lambert wrote of the incident via her daughter's website. They were able to keep her breathing for 45 minutes before help finally arrived.

Lambert recalls being on the stretcher, both a doctor and the sheriff talking to her to make sure she stayed awake until they made it to the hospital.

"Bernice and Carole and I wore size-nine shoes, and I moaned, in this terrible condition, I moaned that I was the only one left with size-nine shoes," Lambert said.

She added it was a "silly thing to say," but she recalled the then Tenton County Sheriff Dwight Loosli started teasing her about her big feet to keep her awake.

A month later, she had recovered enough to make a second trip along the trail. Holtz's husband had made a plaque that listed the names of those killed, so they and other members of the community took rocks from the area and cemented them together along with the plaque.

Karma Lambert stands next to a memorial for the five people who were killed on Aug. 1, 1951, when a lightning bolt hit the tree they were under. Lambert was one of the survivors of the incident. (Leslie Lambert)

Lambert recalled that in 1990, the Forest Service wanted to take the monument down until the church leaders approached them and claimed the monument as a destination point for their campers. So it continues to stand.

A few decades later in 2015, Lambert's family would suggest visiting the monument during a family reunion.

"They asked me if I wanted to go, and I said well, I can barely climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain, but I'd like to try."

The journey, once relatively easy, was now arduous. They had to stop and rest a few times, though they took the opportunity to share her story with other hikers who stopped along the trail.

Finally, they made it to the monument.

"It was nice for my family to be able to see that country. It's beautiful and it's nice to reminisce about those girls and my leader that lost her life," Lambert said. "I'm so appreciative of the beauty of the outdoors, the beauty in the leaders that we have and the concern to take care of you."

Aug. 1, 2021, marked the 70-year anniversary of the incident, which has gone down as one of the deadliest lightning strikes in United States history during a year with an astounding total of lightning fatalities.

John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council (NLSC), said in a press release that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention logged 248 U.S. lightning deaths in 1951 -- more than the NLSC has documented over the last 10 years combined.

"Fortunately today, forecasts are easily available and more accurate than they were in 1951, and it's much easier to monitor weather conditions via electronic devices," Jensenius told AccuWeather via email. "However, tragic incidents like this could still happen today as groups of people still shelter from storms under trees, pavilions and picnic shelters during thunderstorms."

A massive thunderhead pours rain and lightning over suburban Denver homes, Colorado. Trees are silhouetted and homes are lit by incandescent light. The thunderhead is lit by huge lightning bolts reaching from the top of the clouds to the ground. (Getty Images)

The U.S. marked its fifth lighting casualty of 2021 on Friday, July 30, when a man who had been struck by lightning on July 24 succumbed to his injuries. He reportedly had been on the beach at Sanibel Island, Florida, with his wife and two young children when lightning struck. Both he and his wife were injured.

This is the second recorded lightning fatality in Florida this year, according to data from the NLSC. The three other fatalities from lightning this year were reported in New Jersey, Georgia and Pennsylvania, respectively.

"Florida typically leads the nation in lightning deaths," Jensenius said. "Previously, the most recent death was a 17-year-old boy due to a lightning strike on Marco Island on July 17th of this year."

Beach activities are the second greatest contributor to lightning fatalities, he added, noting there have been at least 28 beach-related lightning fatalities across the U.S., including the three from 2021.

The NLSC recommends people stay inside while a thunderstorm is in the area, warning that if you can hear thunder rumbling, then lightning is close enough to strike.

If you are caught outdoors, however, immediately move away from elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks. It's also advised to move away from trees and steer clear of using a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.

Keep checking back on AccuWeather.com and stay tuned to the AccuWeather Network on DirecTV, Frontier, Spectrum, FuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios.

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