Experienced anglers, like 17-year-old Christian Neal and his father, Gabe, are used to surprises. Fishing is, after all, a game of chance — one only the most passionate fishermen can win. They got used to the ebb and flow of the water, and the balance required to stay put in the small boat. But what the father and son experienced that day on the lake, they never saw coming.
Cloudy skies, rocky waters, and a fatefully-placed fishing rod: That’s all it took for a once-in-a-lifetime experience to occur. Christian and Gabe Neal never dreamed that these three factors would come together to electrify their lives one drizzly day on the lake…
When Christian and Gabe heard it was going to rain that day, they weren’t concerned. They weren’t about to let a little rain stop them from fishing, so they pushed out from the dock, gray skies overhead. But according to Christian, “The storm came up quick.”
Before they could make it back to shore, they heard the sound all fishermen know not to take lightly: thunder. As everyone knows, thunder is usually a sign of incoming rain, higher wind speeds, and, of course, lightning.
Hearing the low rumble in the distance, Christian turned to his father and said, “That doesn’t sound good.” They hastened back to the dock, but if there’s one thing even the most experienced fishermen can’t outrun, it’s a lightning strike.
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It was when Christian and his father were heading back to shore that it happened. “Everything went black,” Christian described. “I was launched backward and landed in the backseat between the two consoles.” He was completely out cold…
The average person has, approximately, a 1 in 80,000 chance of being struck by lightning…and Christian just happened to be that 1. When he first woke up from the strike, he felt weirdly numb. “I just felt cold,” he said. But then the oddest thing happened.
There’s still so much we don’t know about lightning, including the details as to why and how a “flash” even happens. Though most people share the same effects of a lightning strike (tissue damage, muscle breakdown, and so on) others experience much more bizarre symptoms.
Christian was in the second category. When he opened his eyes, what he saw sounded impossible. “Everything looked like a negative photograph,” he described. “Colors were different, nothing looked like it should.” Then, the smells started.
It took him a moment to realize that the “vile” scent in the air was coming from his own body. “It smelled like an electrical fire,” he said. “It still haunts me.” But when he fully regained consciousness, he quickly realized that the smell was the least of his worries.
“I felt like I was on fire,” he said. “Everything was in slow motion. My muscles were all contracted and I couldn’t move my legs.” As Christian panicked about his sudden paralysis, another terrifying thought emerged: Where’s Dad?
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What Christian didn’t know was that his father, too, was part of the lightning strike club. After the initial strike, Gabe had been thrown out of the boat and into the water, where he started to sink, totally paralyzed. All Christian could do was pray for help…
Christian witnessed everything that happened next through bursts of consciousness: yelling, the sight of a boat, a man leaning over him, the splashing of water, the sound of sirens. One chilling moment, though, he remembers clear as day.
As activity swarmed around him, he remembers feeling strangely empty. “Everything started getting far away, everything was echoing, and I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to die,'” he described. That’s when he passed out.
But when Christian woke up, he wasn’t greeted by angels. Instead, he saw the white walls of a hospital room. He shifted in bed and felt his toes and legs move, only one of the many miracles Christian experienced that day…
The other miracles happened right after Christian and his father were struck by lightning. As Gabe sank beneath the lake’s surface and Christian lay paralyzed, a nearby boat hurried over to them, a boat that just happened to have an Iraq War veteran and medic aboard.
Andy Flippin, the Iraq War vet and medic, jumped into life-saving mode. “As I got to [Gabe] he was in the water, getting ready to drown,” he said. “Then I went to Christian, who was still smoldering,” he continued. “I could tell he was the one who took the main hit.”
That’s when Andy saw the fishing pole, which Christian had been holding when he got struck by lightning. The fishing pole had become a lightning rod in Christian’s hands, splitting apart and shredding completely. It showed just how much damage a lightning strike can make…
So imagine the damage Christian himself faced. “I got water [and] dumped it on him to put his hair out,” Andy said. Andy’s father called 9-1-1 while his son tended to Gabe and Christian. When the paramedics arrived, they found Christian much worse for wear.
“My heartbeat was so erratic that they said if they didn’t do anything it was going to kill me,” Christian later said. Thankfully, the paramedics did do something: Ironically, they shocked Christian while en route to the hospital, a decision that saved his life.
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“Not very many people can tell that story,” Christian said. Most lightning strikes like the kind he experienced result in long-lasting paralysis, muscle damage, and death, but somehow, he was expected to survive with his limbs and muscles fully intact. Christian has one person to thank…
“I am eternally indebted to [Andy],” he said. “Many visitors, much morphine, and much prayer later, I am now doing great.” One day, the only proof that he was ever struck by lightning will be the charred fighting rod he was carrying when it happened.
Still, the next time Christian goes out on the water, he’ll be extra mindful of the weather…just in case lightning strikes twice. But fishing takes a certain fearlessness, especially when you’ve heard what some of the experts have encountered at sea.
Christian knew of Rick Nuemann, for instance, who was celebrating Easter weekend with his good friend, Julian Cruz, 3 miles off the coast of Florida. They were on a 20-foot vessel, talking politics, grand kids, and fishing. And they were minutes from trouble.
But for Rick, fishing wasn’t a sport where you kicked your feet up and relaxed with a cold beer. He was a spear fisher. “Spearfishing is like hunting in the fish’s element,” Rick always told his skeptical friends. “It’s a charge.”
That thrill of the hunt saw Rick, below, and Julian sliding into skin-tight wet suits and trading in fishing rods and lines for an old-fashioned spear. In over five decades of “shooting” fish, he never ran into any problems in the water.
This day started out as well as any: right away, Rick shot a 51-pound cobia. He was happy with the catch, but as the morning bled into the afternoon, he grew restless. The visibility in this part of the ocean wasn’t great. They needed to move.
Julian captained the ship to a different reef and jumped into the water, spear in hand. Following spearfishing protocol, Rick waited aboard the ship: having two divers down below would spook any cobia. Finally, his friend returned with good news.
“There are cobia down there,” Julian reported as he slipped back on to the ship empty-handed. This was welcome news for Rick, who was antsy to get back into the water himself. There was, however, a vital piece of information missing from Julian’s report.
The hungry shark knew this was a good spot for cobia, and the hungry shark was on his way to that spot for lunch. Of course, Julian couldn’t have known that, which was why Rick jumped fearlessly into the water with no idea how his life was about to change.
Spear in hand, Rick dove down 40 or so feet, his eye on a cobia. He neared his target, felt his fingers tighten on his weapon, and… was smacked hard in the side of the head.
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The collision beneath the sea was hard, like a car accident. In a moment of complete disorientation, Rick saw his scuba mask go flying and a 500-pound shark swimming away. He calmed himself. The shark was gone. He was alive. Then he touched his neck.
He felt warmth — his blood pouring from his neck. His adrenaline truly pumping, he swam back to the surface, hoping to scurry back on to the ship. He didn’t know how bad the damage was… until he saw Julian’s face.
What Julian saw was ghastly: Rick’s ear was attached by a thin thread of skin. The cheek the shark had crashed into sported a deep, gushing wound, which gurgled blood onto the deck of the ship and into his wet suit. Without help, he was going to die.
So Julian called 911. He ran to the ship’s controls and steered towards shore as his ghost-white friend — a grandfather — clutched weakly to the ship’s console. Every time the ship hit a wave, Rick spilled more blood on to the deck. His time was limited.
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The 20-foot ship fought hard against the waves. To keep his friend alert and focused, Julian asked Rick how he was doing. “Okay,” Rick said, underselling a bit. “But let’s get back as quickly as possible.”
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After 45 minutes, the ship finally reached the Florida shores, where paramedics were waiting. The rescue workers placed Rick on a gurney, hooked him up to some IVs, cut off his wet suit, and shoved him into a helicopter. He was on his way to St. Mary’s Hospital trauma center.
Rick was woozy when the chopper landed. The flashing lights and frantic scrambling of nurses in the trauma ward were a haze to his fading mind. He held on for awhile, but then, the world went black.
He woke up later with 200 stitches in his neck. “They reattached my ear, and closed up my cheek, the gashes down my neck, and some more on my shoulder and back,” Rick said of the trauma doctors. With a clear head, he looked back at the moment.
“The doc said I was lucky,” Rick recalled. “There are all kinds of arteries and glands in that part of the body that somehow didn’t get hit.” But the expert diver believed two things were responsible for saving his life.
The first life saver? The wet suit. “I was wearing a thick one because I’d thought we might hit some cold water,” Rick said. “Looking back, that suit probably saved me from a worse bite.” But there was another factor.
The shark! “He bit through the wet suit, and part of me, then realized neither one was a fish and just went on his way,” Rick said. “He was probably a little confused himself… Normally a shark is not going to go after a human being.”
After spending some time healing, Rick was ready to get back into the water. “I still have a healthy respect for the ocean,” he said. And “I need the exercise.” He felt the same way about the ocean as another diving colleague.
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