It’s said that seven is a lucky number, but Roy Sullivan, a.k.a. the “Spark Ranger,” probably would have disagreed. The Shenandoah National Park ranger was apparently a natural conductor of electricity, and was struck by lightning a staggering number of times. Though some doubt Sullivan's stories—no one ever witnessed any of the strikes, only the aftermath—Guinness World Records was able to verify them enough to award the ranger the "Most lightning strikes survived" title. Here are his stories.
It was April, 1942, and Sullivan had only been with the park service for about six years. He was stationed at the brand-new Miller’s Head fire tower when a storm blew in. The tower was so new lightning rods hadn’t been installed yet, and it ended up being struck seven or eight times. Sullivan decided to get the heck out of there, but only made it a few feet away before the lightning found him. “It burned a half-inch strip all the way down my right leg, and knocked my big toe off,” he said. “My boot was full of blood, and it ran out through a hole in the sole.”
Nearly three decades later, in 1969, Sullivan was driving a park truck when lightning struck two trees on one side of the road, then jumped to another tree on the other side. Sullivan’s truck was in the middle, with both windows rolled down. As a result, the ranger lost consciousness, and very nearly drove his truck off the edge of a cliff. When he came to, Sullivan was missing his eyebrows and eyelashes.
The third strike, a year later, happened while Sullivan was off-duty. He was tending to his garden at home when lightning hit a nearby transformer and jumped to his shoulder, knocking him down and burning him lightly.
Number four set poor Sullivan on fire. “There was a gentle rain, but no thunder, until just one big clap, the loudest thing I ever heard,” he said. “When my ears stopped ringing, I heard something sizzling. It was my hair on fire. The flames were up six inches.” Luckily, he had been registering people at a camping station, so he was able to use wet paper towels from a nearby bathroom to smother the flames.
August 7, 1973, brought the fifth strike. Again, Sullivan was in a park truck, and saw storm clouds coming. All too aware of his track record, the ranger tried to outrun the lightning. Once he felt he was out of harm’s way, Sullivan stopped to have a look. Big mistake. “I actually saw the lightning shoot out of the cloud this time, and it was coming straight for me,” he said. It even knocked off one of his shoes, leaving the lace tied.
Sullivan was walking along a park trail in 1976 when he was struck a sixth time. It was the final straw for the Spark Ranger—he retired five months later.
Unfortunately, the lightning found him anyway. On June 25, 1977, Sullivan was trout fishing when the hair on his arms bristled. This strike to the head burned his chest and stomach and caused hearing loss in one ear. To top off Lucky Seven, Sullivan ran into a black bear on the way back to his car.
In case you’re wondering, the odds of getting struck by lightning are about one in 280,000,000. The odds of getting struck by lightning seven times are 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
When Sullivan did pass away, it was a bullet, not a bolt, that did him in. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1983 at the age of 71, perhaps tired of constantly fearing a fatal strike.