Nineteen years ago today I made the round trip from Northern Virginia to Blacksburg to bring Jason, official youngest son of NewMexiKen, home from Virginia Tech for the summer. It was about a 550 mile drive, so not long after I got home from dropping Jason and his stuff off, I collapsed in my Arlington townhouse’s second floor bedroom; exhausted, but not really asleep.
As I lay there dozing on-and-off a little after nine a thunderstorm blew in. I began listening to it, the lightning closer and the thunder right behind and increasingly loud. I was counting the seconds to see how far away the strikes were, when, BAM, the lightning and thunder came in the same instant.
“Wow! That was close.”
I got up to look out the back and front windows to see which large tree it had hit. Not the one in the back open space. Not the even bigger and older one across the street. Odd I thought. It had to be that close.
I went down the two stories to the basement to reset the circuit breakers that had popped. Coming back through, I began the inventory of damaged electronic gear. No phones worked. The TV was screwy and the VCR was blasted. Sitting in the living room I heard a loud static-like sound upstairs and concluded the clock radio had come on, but didn’t work, or maybe the station was off the air. I headed back up, but the noise wasn’t coming from the radio. I started back down again, confused.
Above the stairway landing was a pull-down stepladder to the attic. As I passed—for the third time since the lightning strike I looked up. Through the seam around the molding I could see what was making the crinkly sound.
It was a townhouse with a common attic so I immediately alerted neighbors on both sides and had one of them call the fire department (remember, my phones didn’t work). Foolishly (though there was no smoke), I went back in to get my wallet and car keys from the top of the bureau in the bedroom upstairs. I also grabbed a couple of envelopes with utility payments — but not my State Department ID (which I later thought was an interesting psychology).
The nearest fire station was only a few blocks down the street but they were already out on a call. It was ten minutes before the next nearest engine company arrived. You think waiting for a computer to load a program or waiting for a red light to change is long? Try standing in the pouring rain waiting for the fire trucks when your house is on fire.
The firefighters arrived, vented the attic, went out of their way to protect some of my furniture, and stopped the fire just in time to keep the slate roof from crashing through the burned-out attic and destroying the place top down. Even so there was water and smoke damage all the way down to the basement (water gets into walls and runs across ceilings). It took $50,000 and several months to rebuild the place (I was a renter, but I did return after it was rebuilt). State Farm handled my personal claim with courtesy and generosity. I got a lot of new stuff.
The fire inspector the next morning told me that lightning strikes are about 2000°F. This one hit the faux chimney about 20 feet from me.