Skip to main content

Lightning survivor has no memory of deadly strike

July 14, 2014

Light show over Broken Bow, photo by Tim McCaslin

DENVER (AP) — Justin Teilhet doesn't remember hearing a boom or feeling a sting, just waking up numb on the treeless tundra high in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovering his good friend was trying to revive his wife.

It was a lightning bolt, he learned later, and it killed his wife and left him with a burn on his shoulder and scrapes on his face when he was knocked to the ground unconscious.

Lightning killed two people last weekend in the popular park, where summer storms can close in quickly with deadly results.

Both lightning strikes last weekend hit exposed areas with little cover near the heavily traveled Trail Ridge Road, which offers 360-degree views of snow-covered mountains, forested canyons and alpine lakes. The park, about 65 miles northwest of Denver, draws around 3 million people a year, and numerous signs warn visitors of lightning danger and rapidly changing weather.

Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed Friday while hiking on the Ute Crossing Trail at about 11,400 feet above sea level. Justin Teilhet and six other hikers were injured.

One day later and a few miles away, lightning killed 52-year-old Gregory Cardwell of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at Rainbow Curve, a pullout on Trail Ridge Road with sweeping vistas from a vantage point about 10,800 feet above sea level. Three others were hurt by that strike.

Colorado averages three deaths and 15 injuries a year from lightning and often ranks No. 2 in the nation in lightning casualties, behind Florida, said Bob Glancy, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder.

"Part of that is because Colorado is a great place to be outside," he said. The terrain and weather also are factors. The mountain profile and summer weather patterns create frequent thunderstorms over the Front Range, which includes Rocky Mountain National Park.

Teilhet, his wife and his friend Nick Tertel of Fort Collins, Colorado, were in a line of hikers hustling back to the trailhead parking lot on Trail Ridge Road as the weather changed.

"A storm blew in, and it came very fast," Teilhet said Monday from his home in Ohio. "It started raining a little bit. We were hearing claps of thunder everywhere, but it there wasn't any lightning."

The next thing he remembers is struggling to lift his body from the ground, with one side numb.

"I was walking, and then I was trying to stand up," he said, with no memory of anything in between.

"When I found Nick trying to revive my wife, I crawled to them and tried to help."

Tertel also was injured but gave Rebecca Teilhet CPR and kept her alive until paramedics arrived, Justin Teilhet said.

"He really was a hero at that event," Teilhet said.

Park officials said a helicopter was dispatched but Rebecca Teilhet died at the scene.

Tertel declined to comment. Cardwell's family didn't immediately return a phone call.

Teilhet and Cardwell were the first people killed by lightning in the park since a climber died on Longs Peak in 2000, officials said. A woman was injured by lightning last year.

Park officials don't close Trail Ridge Road because of lightning, saying that would be impractical.

Teilhet said he saw one of the advisories about lightning at the trailhead.

"When you see a sign warning you about lightning, you just sort of file it away with the things you already know are dangerous," he said.

Teilhet doesn't think the National Park Service could or should have done anything more, and he praised the staff's response.

"This a huge, beautiful, dangerous, amazing place, and they've done a lot to make it accessible to the public," he said.

Stay Safe

Did you know ... The average lightning flash could light a 100-watt light bulb for more than 3 months! The temperature of a lightning bolt may reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit which is hotter than the surface of the sun!

On average, lightning kills about 73 nationwide. In fact, lightning remains one of the most deadly weather phenomena in the U.S., and it can occur almost anywhere throughout the entire year. Lightning occurring during snowstorms has even killed people! Many people incur injuries or are killed due to misinformation and inappropriate behavior during thunderstorms. A few simple precautions can reduce many of the dangers posed by lightning.

Do you hear it?

Once you hear thunder, it is time to act to prevent being struck by lightning. Generally speaking, once you can see lightning or hear thunder, you're already at risk for lightning injury or death. If the time delay between seeing the flash (lightning) and hearing the bang (thunder) is less than 30 seconds, immediately seek a safer location.

Avoid being in or near

High places and open fields, isolated trees, gazebos, open sided picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, communication towers, flagpoles, light poles, bleachers (metal or wood), metal fences, convertibles, golf carts, water (ocean, lakes, swimming pools, rivers, etc.)

When inside a building AVOID:

Use of the telephone or computer, taking a shower, washing your hands, doing dishes, or any contact with conductive surfaces with exposure to the outside such as metal door or window frames, electrical wiring, telephone wiring, cable TV wiring, plumbing, etc.

If driving:

Stay in your automobile. An enclosed automobile offers reasonably good protection from lightning, as long as you don't touch metal.

Pay attention to weather warning devices such as NOAA Weather Radio and/or credible Lightning Detection systems. Noaa All Hazards Radio and local weather forecasts should be monitored prior to any outdoor event to determine if thunderstorms are in the forecast.

Thursday Night Football 11/13 Miami (6-4) 22 vs Buffalo (5-5) 9 Miami QB Ryan Tannehill threw 2...
Shortly after watching Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon run through his charges in record-setting fashion...
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Nebraska tried its best to emulate Melvin Gordon's speed in practice. But no...