A college freshman walking across campus on her first day of classes was struck by lightning, with the bolt melting her clothes, burning her skin and blowing up the smartwatch on her wrist.
But a month later, 18-year-old Emma Eggler is healing well and back in class at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
“The EMS people told me I should buy a lottery ticket because I was very lucky,” Eggler told TODAY.
It could have been much worse. Less than three weeks before the student’s ordeal, three people died and a woman was left in critical condition in Washington after a lightning strike across the street from the White House. Also in August, a Florida woman was killed by lightning as she waited for her child to be released from school in a nearby park.
So far in 2022, 19 people have been killed by lightning in the U.S., the National Weather Service reported. In a typical year, about 30 Americans die — often from cardiac arrest — and those who survive can suffer lifelong disabilities, the agency noted.
Florida has been called the nation’s “lightning capital,” with more than 2,000 lightning injuries in the state in the past 50 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lightning danger near trees
All of the recent victims were near trees when they were struck and so was Eggler. The teenager had just recently moved from her hometown of Chelsea, Alabama, to Pensacola, Florida, and was finishing her first day of college at UWF on Aug. 22 when she took a tree-lined path to her last class.
A storm had passed by a few minutes earlier, but seemed to be gone, she recalled. She didn’t hear any more thunder, but did feel some lingering concern.
“I was like, even if there is lightning in the area still, I’m going to go through the trees. That way if it does strike, it will strike the trees,” Eggler said. “So I went through the trees just to be safe, and it was not safe.”
The student doesn’t remember a big flash or much else when the lightning struck other than “everything was red.” She could see the ground getting closer to her as she fell face first and then blacked out.
“I just woke up on the ground and wasn’t able to move my body,” Eggler said. “I was unable to move or speak for a minute or two. I was really panicked (because) it felt very long.”
Melted clothes, blown-up Apple Watch
When she could finally move her upper body, she screamed out for help. A woman who was walking nearby called 911 and ran to get more assistance.
Eggler’s shirt had melted down to her bra, so another student wrapped her in his shirt.
She had a hole in her left shoe, her left sock was singed and the Apple Watch she was wearing on her left wrist had exploded, but she was conscious and alive.
At the hospital, Eggler was treated for second-degree burns on her wrist and stomach, and an injury on her foot. It took two hours for the movement to return to her legs.
Doctors told her the lightning entered in her chest and exited through her left foot. The student was wearing sneakers so the current didn’t connect to the ground because of the rubber on her shoe, she said.
After being treated for her burns and injuries, Eggler said she has been healing "very well" and is now back in class at the University of West Florida. She continues to experience occasional pain and numbness in her legs, and has an appointment with a cardiologist in a few weeks to check her heart function as a precaution.
The "massive direct current shock" from a lightning strike can lead to an irregular heartbeat, bruising of the heart muscle and other cardiac effects, studies have found.
Eggler did buy a lottery ticket after the ordeal, but didn’t win anything. Still, there were important lessons learned.
“I’m definitely not going to walk outside even if it’s sprinkling anymore. I downloaded a lightning radar [tracker app]. I’m prepared now,” she said.
Lightning safety tips:
Remember the phrase, “When thunder roars, go indoors.” If you can hear thunder, you’re likely within striking distance of the storm.
When inside, stay away from windows and doors. Don't shower or otherwise have contact with water; and don't use anything connected to an electrical outlet or use a corded phone.
If you’re caught outside, seek shelter immediately. Safe places include homes, offices, shopping centers and hard-top vehicles with the windows rolled up. Avoid open structures like porches and gazebos.
If there’s no nearby shelter, stay away from tall structures such as trees and telephone poles. Never shelter under an isolated tree. Don’t be the tallest object in the area: Crouch down in a ball-like position with your head tucked and hands over your ears.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com