Poland, Slovakia Lightning Kills at Least 5, Injures 150

Jan Wesner Childs
Published: August 23, 2019

At least five people were killed and 150 injured by a series of lightning strikes in a mountain range on the border of Poland and Slovakia Thursday afternoon.

"A large group of random people has been hit," Jan Krzysztof, chief of the mountain rescue service, told the Associated Press. "Many people, including children. Burnt, with broken legs, wounds all over their bodies."

Several people had been unaccounted for but were found through the course of the day Friday.

Witnesses described a chaotic sene in which climbers were knocked off the mountain slope, hit by falling rocks or couldn't move after being struck.

Rescuers in a helicopter check the slopes of the Giewont peak for missing persons and anyone who might need help in the Tatra mountains in Poland on Friday, August 23, 2019. Three people were still missing after a deadly lightning strike on Thursday.
(AP Photo/Bartlomiej Jurecki)

Four of the dead were struck on a popular hiking trail to the summit of Giewont, a peak in southern Poland's Tatra mountains, the BBC reported. Officials think a lightning bolt may have struck a nearly 50-foot-tall metal cross and then traveled along a metal railing.

"We heard that after (the) lightning struck, people fell," Krzysztof said. "The current then continued along the chains securing the ascent, striking everyone along the way. It looked bad."

The fifth person killed was struck in neighboring Slovakia. The victim was a Czech tourist who fell hundreds of yards down a mountainside after being hit.

Two of the dead were children, the AP reported. Injuries included burns, fractures and heart problems. Officials said 34 of the victims were still in hospitals Friday.

Mariusz Brodzinski, who was on his first trip to the area with his wife, told Polish broadcaster TVN24 that he saw a woman in front of him fall off the slope after lightning struck the metal chains they were holding on to, according to the AP.

"This woman is dead," Brodzinski said. "My wife slid and suffered a fractured pelvis and injured head. I have a burnt foot. It felt like it was scorching."

Rescue helicopters and ambulances transport victimes of a lighting strike in Poland's southern Tatra Mountains on Thursday, August 22, 2019.
(AP Photo/Bartlomiej Jurecki)

Trails in the area were closed indefinitely after the casualties.

While some survivors said the bad weather came "out of nowhere," rescuers said there were signs of an approaching storm but many people continued up the peak anyway. They reminded tourists to pay more attention to weather forecasts and conditions.

Afternoon thunderstorms are not unusual in the region.

"It's common in mountainous areas for the morning to start out with clear skies, only to have afternoon thunderstorms develop," weather.com meteorologist Jonathan Erdman said. "This happens because air converges and rises over mountains when they're heated by the sun. If the atmosphere is unstable enough, as is often the case in summer, this converging, rising air eventually becomes afternoon thunderstorms.

"In general, never assume an afternoon in the mountains will be thunderstorm-free in summer, even if the morning is clear. Check the forecast before you go."

Local prosecutors are investigating whether anyone was responsible for allowing a situation in which people were killed.

The Tatras are part of the Carpathian mountain range and are the highest mountains in Poland and Slovakia, according to the AP. They are a popular tourist attraction with scenic lakes and peaks up to 8,710 feet.

A similar incident happened decades ago in 1937 when lightning killed four people on Giewont, the same peak that was hit Thursday.


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