CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Coast Guard airlifted seven people to safety Saturday afternoon after lightning struck their boat. Take a look at the video one of the survivors took as the lightning bolt hits their 39-foot fishing boat. An orange glow lights up the woman on screen. Sparks fire over her head as someone screams, then the phone falls.
The powerful strike took out all electronics on the power boat including the motor and the radio. The captain and owner of the boat did have an EPIRB and flares in the emergency bag. With no steering or power, he immediately activated the EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon). The battery-powered device transmits a continuous distress call.
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Satellites initially picked up the S-O-S, 100 miles off the Clearwater, Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico and relayed the information to a control center which alerted the Coast Guard.
Having no information, the Coast Guard called the registered owner of the EPIRB. His shocked wife answered the phone. She said her husband was on his boat with six others participating in an offshore fishing tournament.
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"So we knew we had a rescue case to go out and do, and having that location helped us get there that much faster," said Petty Officer First Class, Ayla Hudson with the Coast Guard. "When the helicopter started getting close, they set off their flares. So the helicopter knows that’s them and that's where they are and we can help them."
The rescue helicopter rescued the two men and five women via a rescue basket. None were injured.
"They left the vessel where it was and the owner is coordinating with commercial salvage for getting it recovered," said Hudson. "The extent of the damage… hasn't even been assessed yet by the owner."
The Coast Guard cautions all boaters to watch the weather and get out of a storm as fast as possible.
"This time of year in Florida, it's almost clockwork that somewhere between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., there's going to be a thunderstorm somewhere," said Hudson. "And Florida's the number one state for lightning strikes per square mile."
The CDC reports that almost 90% of lightning strike victims survive. One person, they wrote, was hit seven times in a lifetime. The Sunshine State is the "lightning capital of the country," according to the CDC and logged more than 2,000 lightning injuries in the past 50 years.
Lightning heats the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees and a ground stroke can produce between 100 million and one billion volts of electricity. The average diameter of a bolt is one inch, according to the NWS. The boaters' survival story is incredible considering this.
Don’t think that being inside protects you from lightning. About a third of lightning injuries happen indoors.
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Like these boaters, the Coast Guard recommends having safety equipment like flares and EPIRBs and know how to use them.
"And then filing a float plan with trusted family or friends. That's where you're going, how long you're going to be there, when you're coming back and where you're coming back to, what marina, what boat ramp, what park?." Hudson said. "So if you don't show up when you're supposed to, having that information helps us search for people."