The Strange Case of the Man Who Was Struck by Lightning Seven Times

Joe Donan

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Roy Cleveland Sullivan — Picture source: Guinness World Records

Here’s a quick fact: The odds of being struck by lightning for an average person in any one year are around 1 in 500,000 — or 0.000002%. Despite these astronomically low chances, Roy Cleveland Sullivan, a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, was hit by lightning not once, but seven times during his lifetime.

To this day, Sullivan holds the record of being hit by lightning more times than any other human being in history. This streak of unfortunate experiences harmed him physically, wrecked him mentally, and earned him the nickname “The Human Lightning Rod.”

A lifetime marked by misfortune

Statistically speaking, Sullivan’s job as a park ranger made him considerably more exposed to storms than the average person, making lightning strikes a form of occupational hazard. On top of that, Virginia has a relatively high lightning rate, averaging thirty-five to forty-five thunderstorm days per year.

With the sole exception of Sullivan’s allegedly first encounter with a lightning bolt, all strike episodes were documented by the superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, R. Taylor Hoskins. Details below:

Initial strike (unregistered), sometime during Sullivan’s childhood

As Sullivan was helping his father cut wheat in the fields, a lightning bolt struck the blade of the scythe he was holding. Fortunately, little Roy escaped unharmed.

First strike, April 1942

Sullivan was taking refuge from a thunderstorm in a recently-built fire lookout tower. The structure, which didn’t have a lightning rod, had already been hit several times, so Sullivan decided to leave, afraid his life was in danger.

Ironically, a bolt struck him right after he got off the tower, leaving severe burns all over his body, a knocked-off big toenail, a bloody boot, and a hole in its sole. Sullivan would always remember this as his absolute worst experience with lightning strikes.

Second strike, July 1969

As Sullivan was driving a truck through a thunderstorm, a nearby tree was hit by lightning. The bolt was redirected at another tree across the road in the exact moment he was driving by — with both side-windows open — knocking him unconscious and burning off most of his hair. The truck continued moving forward, luckily stopping at the edge of a cliff.

This event was later recreated in the 2008 film The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, in which Mr. Daws (played by Ted Manson) repeatedly claimed he had been hit by lightning seven times in his youth.

Third strike, July 1970

Sullivan’s least unfortunate encounter with lightning occurred when he was standing in his front yard and a bolt hit a power transformer, bouncing back toward him. His only injury was a seared shoulder.

Fourth strike, springtime 1972

Strangely, Sullivan’s fourth lightning strike was indoors while he was working at the ranger station. As gentle rain was falling, Sullivan suddenly heard a loud noise: a bolt entered the building through the window, setting his hair on fire.

Sullivan recalls the flames on top of his head being several inches tall. He immediately ran to the restroom where he managed to put out the fire using soaked paper towels.

After this incident, Sullivan became convinced that there was an unnatural force trying to kill him, and he developed an intense fear of death. Whenever he was caught under the rain while driving, he would pull over and lie on the front seat until the storm was over. Additionally, he started carrying a can of water around all the time should he ever catch fire again.

Fifth strike, August 1973

And catch fire again he did. As he was driving through the park he made out storm clouds gathering in the distance, so he turned around and raced off in the opposite direction. The clouds, however, somehow seemed to be following him.

Just when Sullivan thought he had “lost” the cloud, he got out of the truck, and he was once again struck by lightning. Curiously, for the first time, Sullivan recalled catching a glimpse of the bolt coming at him. He suffered body burns, and one of his shoes was knocked off.

Still conscious, he crawled back to the truck and retrieved the can of water, putting out the fire on top of his head for a second time. As it turns out, it wouldn’t be the last.

Sixth strike, June 1976

A lightning bolt struck Sullivan yet again, this time in the ankle, as he was walking down the Sawmill Shelter Trail. The place was about a mile away from the site where he was hit the second time four years earlier.

For Sullivan, that hit was the last straw. He quit his job after 36 years of service and moved to Dooms, Virginia, with his wife Pat. He even went the extra mile and equipped several trees around his new home with lightning rods going seven feet into the ground. Little did he know his days of being zapped by lightning weren’t over yet.

Seventh strike, June 1977

As he was fishing trout, Sullivan “smelled sulfur” and felt the hairs in his arms bristle. At that moment, a lightning bolt hit him on top of his head, setting his hair on fire for the third time. This final strike was the most devastating: He suffered burns in the chest and the digestive tract up to the stomach, and hearing loss in one ear.

To make matters worse, as he was recovering from the shock, he was attacked by a bear going after the trout he’d caught. Fortunately, Sullivan still had enough strength and courage to fight off the beast, hitting it square in the face with a tree branch, successfully driving it away.

As it turned out, besides his long history with lightning strikes, Sullivan also had plenty of experience dealing with hungry bears, gained from his service as a park ranger.

Bonus strike: Sullivan’s wife.

Reportedly, Sullivan’s wife was also struck by lightning once while she was hanging up clothes in the backyard with him. Despite standing near her, Sullivan escaped unscathed, for a change.

The silent suffering of a very unfortunate man

Sullivan endured loneliness and sadness as most people avoided his company out of fear of being zapped with him, especially during the rainy season. Reportedly, on one occasion, as he was walking with the Chief Park Ranger, they could hear a thunderstorm in the distance. That was enough for the chief to suddenly turn at Sullivan and say “Well, I’ll see you later.”

Cold as this treatment may seem, the locals were right in staying away from him. A single lightning bolt can reach 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — which is roughly half the temperature of the sun’s surface. This intense heat can burn tissue, cause lung damage, and harm the chest painfully by the force of rapidly expanding heated air.

According to the National Weather Service storm data, about 10% of people hit by lightning die, and 90% are left with various degrees of disabilities. Despite being struck seven times, Sullivan’s good luck was remarkable. Not only did he survive each encounter with lightning, but also he never needed to be taken to an emergency room.

Sadly, what didn’t kill Sullivan didn’t make him stronger, either. On the morning of September 28th, 1983, he was found dead on his bed. He had shot himself in the head with his shotgun, for reasons that still spark controversy. Some say he took his own life due to unrequited love, others speculate his wife Pat killed him, and there are those who believe he was tired of constantly looking over his shoulders for storm clouds.

Sullivan was 71 years old when he died. His mortal remains lie at Edgewood Cemetery, Augusta County, Virginia; his tombstone reading “We loved you, but God loved you more.”

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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.

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