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Jun 11, 2012 5:54 PM

Lightning warning as monsoon gets closer

TUCSON - The monsoon is a powerful force. We know how dangerous the wind and rain can be, but sometimes we forget about the lightning.

Southern Arizona gets more than 600,000 lightning strikes every year. Those strikes spark fires, damage homes, and can also kill. On average, 54 people in the United States are killed by lightning every year. Last year, two people in Arizona died from lightning strikes.

A direct hit is usually fatal, but a near miss can send you to the hospital. Gary West of Northwest Fire knows that first hand.

"It felt like a giant hammer had hit us". Gary said of the lighting strike.

Gary West is the Division Chief of Health and Safety for NorthWest Fire. In the mid 1990's he and another firefighter got zapped by lightning, not a direct hit, but a shock of electricity that knocked both firefighters flat on their backs and put them in the hospital for the night.

"Boy it was a body slam, hammer. It literally hurt everywhere, all parts of the body. And you could feel it where it went into you."

A summer storm blew a tree onto a car on I-10 near Cortaro. West and his partner tried to remove the tree, thinking the storm was long gone, but they were wrong. It was nearly a deadly mistake.

"There was not a life to be saved, they had self extricated. I had under estimated the ability of that storm to come back and get us, so that was a strong lesson learned. The bolts just kept coming and the lightning just kept taking place. I ordered my men into the truck so that we were out of the elements."

Gary West and his partner spent the night in the hospital after their close call, and West says he nearly got zapped two other times. One left the image of a lightning bolt in his eye for several weeks. The other gave him an irregular heart beat for a couple days.

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