When Lightning Strikes
A Survivor’s Tale
By Ken Willis | Senior Staff Writer
When he regained consciousness and found himself sprawled against the Ponce Inlet jetty’s railing, James Church was able to see the condominium lights across the water, able to feel the drizzling rain, able to recall the massive flash from a moment earlier.
But he was unable to move, and Church suspected he was in trouble.
Though finally able to flip himself off his back to hopefully begin a crawl to his nearby phone, he realized he might actually die there.
In a literal sense of the word, you can call it a gut feeling.
“When I rolled over, that’s when I felt a big gush, a lot of liquid come out,” Church says. “I think a lot of stuff got liquefied, and it came out that hole.”
That hole, roughly silver-dollar sized, was punched into Church’s gut by some 300 million volts of electricity, give or take, delivered by a lightning bolt in the damp blackness of a pre-dawn Saturday morning in January.
As unwanted visitors go, a lightning bolt is the worst that nature can bring a man. Fortunately, it stays less time than you can physically conjure — a millisecond, is how such a duration is described.
It comes in, immediately looks for an exit, and departs. The destruction it leaves during that fraction of a blink, however, is rather memorable and not in a good way.
They would later measure, in feet, how much of Church’s intestines were removed. The last two fingers of his right hand became victims of lightning’s quirky getaway plans — there’s no exit plan for lightning, just an exit, and Church’s two former fingers pointed the way.
Church knew none of what was to come during those unimaginable moments seven months ago. He could know nothing of the eventual outcome, and worse yet, he couldn’t be sure he’d witness it.
But he is witnessing it, and how. Fit, healthy and, unless you see the visible scars and invisible fingers, he appears as good as you could imagine for a 55-year-old man.
There’s a knee-jerk reaction in these situations.
“James, you’re a lucky man.”
For starters, the National Weather Service estimates your annual odds of getting struck by lightning at over a million-to-one. You’re about 25 times more likely to be bitten by a venomous snake.
For all the lightning we see in Florida, in terms of lightning-victim ratio, the tiniest fraction of bolts find a human body. Of those rare victims, 90 percent live to tell the tale, the other 10 percent are generally killed by cardiac arrest.
Also, a scroll through the statistical database shows how rare it is to get an electrical storm except in our hottest months and, furthermore, the hottest afternoon hours of the hot days within those hottest months.
Church was hit before daylight on a damp and cool Jan. 7. Hit by a storm whose lightning, he swears, was way off on the horizon. If the normal odds are a million-to-one, the early-January odds must be totally off the charts.
Don’t call him lucky.
To expand the issue, there was also nothing lucky about growing up half-white and half-native in the 1960s Philippines, where Church says he endured daily taunts and occasional beat-downs as a young boy due to his racial status.
However, it was that rough upbringing, he says now, that first led him to try martial arts, which led him to a definite toughness and certain level of self-discipline, which led him to a lifetime of physical awareness and both kinds of strength — inner and outer …
… Which led him off his back and onto his leaking belly, from where he crawled to help and, to see him now, rallied back to a life worth living.
Church’s previous jobs included work as a cook and as a mate on the Critter Fleet charter boats. He currently owns and operates a lawn maintenance business and, on Mondays and Wednesdays, teaches two-hour classes in hapkido, a Korean martial art he first added to his repertoire 26 years ago — he’s now a fifth-degree black belt.
“I work hard,” he says.
Long ago, Saturdays became his personal day of leisure, particularly in the winter when the lawn business slows dramatically. Ten miles from his Port Orange home, the Ponce Inlet fishing jetty is a concrete walkway sitting atop heavy rocks. It would become his usual Saturday perch, from pre-dawn to late afternoon.
He likes to set up shop at the jetty’s first little “nook” on the inlet side of the walkway, about two-thirds of the way down the jetty path, which is about 300 yards long.
“That’s my Saturday thing.”
On Jan. 7, shortly after 6 a.m., it was drizzling, with temperatures in the 50s and a cold front approaching. Church knew all this and dressed appropriately, covering his normal clothing with olive-colored waders, built-in rubber boots, and a yellow rain jacket. He also brought an umbrella and set it up above the folding metal chair he also brings.
Some of those accessories — the rubber boots, the umbrella — would eventually play roles in Church’s survival, but they would’ve been afterthoughts except for the overriding reason they were needed in the first place.
Church laughs now at the absurdity of what he’s about to say, but admits he’s been at the jetty when the weather was so wet and electric, he’d climb down from the concrete and hide between the giant rocks to continue fishing.“Yeah, I know,” he says now, shaking his head at the thought.
This wasn’t quite one of those days. Or so it seemed.
“It was drizzling a little bit, but the lightning was way, way off, way out on the horizon,” he says.
Yep, familiar story, according to Matt Bragaw, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Melbourne. Bragaw’s specialty is lightning and, among the many details he can unload on you, there’s this: “Most people aren’t struck at the peak of a storm.”
“Most people have enough sense to come out of a bad storm,” Bragaw continues. “The storms that produce the most lightning are those that strike the least amount of people. What people don’t realize, lightning is usually the first to arrive and the last to leave during a storm. And it’s the only thunderstorm hazard that can strike outside the core of the storm.”
Most victims in this country, however, are indeed killed in Florida. From 2007 through 2016, our state had 51 lightning fatalities. Texas, a huge state with its share of storms, was next with 21. Bragaw says Florida averages 100-120 days a year with a thunderstorm, which seems like an extreme number until you consider the world leader: Kampala, located in Uganda in the middle of the African continent, which averages an amazing 270 thunderstorms per year.
Given all of the previously stated long odds, you’re tempted to believe it was simply James Church’s destiny to be struck by lightning that morning. It happened, after all, on his very first cast.
And it happened before his baited hook hit the water. His rig included a veritable bulls-eye, in the form of an 8-ounce lead sinker. It never got more than about 10 feet away from the platform before the blinding yellow-orange flash and deafening pop.
“That was it. Never got a chance to fish,” Church says with a survivor’s chuckle.
In that tiniest fraction of time, the bolt exploded the sinker into shrapnel, some of which hit Church in the face. The fishing pole broke, but not without leading the bolt down to its butt end, jammed against Church’s lower abdomen, where his right elbow was also anchored.
With Church’s rubberized clothing and waders limiting the electricity’s options, it exited up his right arm and through his hand. Lightning doesn’t post a travel itinerary, but that appears to be the most plausible theory.
It also sent him flying several feet.
It was now survival time, with the degree of difficulty increased dramatically. On Saturday mornings, even at this hour, Church is rarely the only fisherman at the jetty. The weather, he figures, kept the others away on Jan. 7. There was no help.
Though literally in the dark, he came out of the knockout punch and knew the situation, but was mostly numb and therefore unsure if he could do anything about it.
The odds had finally snared him.
“He’s lucky to be alive,” says Bragaw, “but very, very, very unlucky to be hit. Climatically, January is the least likely month. You just don’t get thunderstorms in January. The only thing that can generate that type of instability in January is a cold front.
“He was at the absolute wrong place at the absolute wrong time. If he’d waited another hour, this never would’ve happened.”
And without Church’s physical abilities, along with the innate will to live that’s often discovered in such situations, he might not be here to tell the story. The roots of his survival go way back.
Church was born in the Philippines, son of a Filipino woman and an American serviceman named James West. Church, born James West Jr., says he was an infant when his father died in a military accident.
He says his mother feared that her late husband’s family would want to adopt him, so he was sent “into hiding” to live with his maternal grandmother on the Philippines island of Leyte, host to the famous 1944 return of American Gen. Douglas MacArthur during World War II.
Church says he and friends would go to the beach and play in boats, still sitting in their original beached location, that had dramatically brought MacArthur’s party to shore more than two decades earlier. It was a nice diversion, he says, from a childhood home that had no electricity or running water.
Unfortunately, says Church, his youth wasn’t always a day at the beach. He looked a little different than the native Filipinos, and that didn’t work in his favor.
“Because I was half and half, I got in a fight every day,” he says. “Got teased a lot, every single day. Got beat up a lot.”
An uncle got him into martial arts.
“Started training. No more fights after that,” says Church, whose mother remarried another U.S. military man, named Durant Church, who would officially adopt James and move the family to the U.S. when James was 12. They spent two years in San Diego before moving to Jacksonville, where Church graduated from Sandalwood High School and lived until moving here in 1984.
Church kept up his martial arts training and, in the early-’90s, discovered hapkido, which is described as an “eclectic Korean martial art.” Like other martial arts, to become a fifth-degree black belt, one must have a unique combination of physical and mental skills.
One look at Church, with his 165 pounds (down from 175 pre-strike) spread proportionately over his 5-foot-8 frame, with his pipe-fitter’s hands and defined torso, you immediately notice the physical. What he describes of that morning on Jan. 7, and what you can hear on a recording of his 9-1-1 call, is testimony to the inner steel.
When Church regained consciousness, he was on his back, against a metal post that probably kept him from tumbling several feet down to the jagged rocks.
“My (left) arm was dangling,” he says. “The only thing working was my eyes and my brain. I could see the condo lights in New Smyrna, but I couldn’t feel nothing. Nothing hurt, but I didn’t know what was left of me. Numb.”
His cell phone was about 10 feet away, inside his tackle box, atop the metal folding chair, under the umbrella. On his back against the post and the edge of the concrete, he says he began swinging his left arm — an effort to produce enough momentum to flip over to his stomach and begin crawling to the phone.
“I said, ‘I’m not gonna die this way,’ and the second time I yelled it out, I flipped myself over.”
Good news: He was alert enough to know what he had to do. Bad news: He was alert enough to suddenly realize he was leaking from where the body isn’t designed to leak — the lightning’s entrance into his stomach. He made it to the tackle box, which was impossible to open with his left hand.
“I went to my right hand. That’s when I found out they were gone,” Church says, looking down at the nubs where his ring and pinky fingers used to be. “I didn’t feel anything, but I knew they weren’t there. Just two little bones sticking out of one of them. Just melted it away.
“But I really was focusing on my tackle box, trying to function. Finally got my two thumbs going. Unlatched one latch, then the other.”
Then came another major obstacle: Utter fatigue.
The rush of adrenaline that had gotten him that far was now gone and replaced by complete exhaustion. It was still dark, still raining. He was still alone on that long jetty. For a moment, he put his head in the chair.
“I was so tired,” he says.
It “took a while,” he says, to get his phone open and dial 9-1-1.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“Yes ma’am. I’m at Ponce inlet. I just got hit by lightning.”
James Church’s life was presumably now saved.
But first, someone had to find him.
Nearly nine minutes into the 9-1-1 call, after providing general information between long pauses and an occasional groan, Church is told the rescue vehicle is entering the park. He’s glad because, as he tells the dispatcher, “everything’s starting to hurt a little bit now.”
Lighthouse Point Park is a sprawling area. As for location, all Church could tell the 9-1-1 dispatcher was, yes, he could see the lighthouse from where he had propped himself. At 175 feet, the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and the second tallest masonry lighthouse in the United States. It’s visible from a wide berth around that park, and well beyond.
The first responders, an emergency team from the Ponce Inlet Fire Department, included 10-year veteran and former pro surfer John Brooks. As the rain picked up dramatically, Brooks went toward the beach side of the park, while fellow crew members Cheryl Herren and Pete Steffen went searching in a different direction — they had the gurney.
“I was scanning the beach,” says Brooks, 45. “As I scanned the jetty, I saw his umbrella sticking up. It was the only thing I saw in the whole area, so I thought, ‘It’s gotta be him.’”
Church’s time with the 9-1-1 dispatcher, lasting nearly 14 minutes, was coming to an end.
“I see one guy right now. He’s running towards me.”
“He does see you, right?”
“Yeah, he’s right here.”
When Brooks arrived on the scene, he figured he’d confirmed his find, since Church’s cell phone was illuminated.
Brooks is from this area but lived in California for 10 years while surfing professionally. He still surfs, sometimes in Ponce Inlet. Church, too, is an occasional surfer, also occasionally at the inlet.
“I don’t know him, but I recognized him. That’s the way it is with surfing,” says Brooks, who also quickly recognized something else.
“There was smoke coming from his side and his hand.” Smoke, at least 15 minutes after the strike.
Brooks radioed Herren and Steffen with his whereabouts, but then, another obstacle. A section of the park’s wooden walkway, leading to the concrete jetty walkway, had been washed away three months earlier by Hurricane Matthew and hadn’t yet been replaced. No way they could wheel the heavy gurney, which was topped with emergency equipment, across the soft sand to the concrete.
Here, the stories diverge, because Brooks says he put away his radio when another lightning bolt hit, way too close for his comfort. Church, obviously dazed but relatively lucid if you hear the 9-1-1 call, says he never saw or heard another lightning strike. Doesn’t matter, because without the ability to have the gurney wheeled to the scene, Brooks looked to Church and said, “We gotta get outta here.”
Church isn’t a large man, but Brooks is smaller — 5-foot-5, 155 pounds. He was prepared to use the proverbial “fireman’s carry,” but Church said he’d try to get out on his own two feet.
“I took his arm, put his arm around my shoulders, put my arm around his midsection. Hoisted him up,” says Brooks.
That was the easy part. Under normal conditions, it’s 267 grown-man steps from their location to the foot of the jetty, where they needed to go — “seemed longer than that,” says Brooks.
They got there.
“He did better than I thought he’d be able to do,” says Brooks. “He could use his left leg a little bit. Right leg just kinda dragged. We headed down the walkway like that.”
A park worker arrived on the scene with one of the county’s four-wheel Kawasaki utility vehicles. Church was loaded up and taken to an ambulance that had arrived shortly after the original Ponce Inlet Fire crew.
A trip to Halifax Health Medical Center brought X-rays and wound care, but Church would have to be sent to the Orlando Regional Medical Center, which is the closest hospital with a burn unit. First, however, another obstacle.
“My ambulance guys asked if I wanted them or another unit to take me and I said I wanted them. But then he said we’d have to wait about 10 minutes before leaving because their ambulance had gotten a flat tire.”
At least, by then, Church had been introduced to morphine.
As a surgeon who specializes in critical care, Dr. Stephen Hersperger has seen lightning victims before, and it’s almost always the same injury.
“Burns at the entry and exit of the lightning,” says Hersperger, who was surprised by what the X-rays told him at Orlando Regional Medical Center when James Church was brought to him.
“He certainly had some unusual injuries,” he continues. “There was a perforation of part of the colon and part of the small intestine. Those things are very unusual.”
Hersperger opened Church’s belly, from the bottom of his sternum to his beltline, to look for additional damage — “make a big incision and start exploring things,” he says of his examination of the stomach, liver and other internal organs. Nothing else was found. Church’s colon (large intestine) was repaired after nearly half of it was removed, and some small intestine was lost during its repair.
“Very unusual, never seen that,” he says of those particular lightning-strike injuries.
“I talked to our burn director here,” Hersperger continues. “I think what we believe happened — there’s no way to prove it — there’s so much electrical voltage, it caused him to jab himself with that fishing pole very hard. It was a blunt injury to his bowel, which perforated. It would be unusual for bowel perforation due to lightning. But we don’t know, of course.”
Hersperger recalls how well and how quickly Church recovered, and while giving proper credit to Church’s physical fitness and great attitude, he directs attention to what he feels may be most important in these situations.
“I can’t stress enough to you, having good family support and being motivated by them to get better, is so critical,” he says. “I would say, through it all, he had a great attitude, and his family was very appreciative and very supportive of him.”
Church’s wife of 10 years (Thanatchaya, a Thailand native, is known to all as “Honey”) and four kids — two of his own, two of Honey’s he adopted — beat a steady path to Orlando during his nine-day stay. His mother, Mila, came down from Jacksonville.
Daughter Jaymie Hause didn’t go back and forth to Orlando from her Port Orange home. She brought luggage and stayed in her dad’s hospital room the whole time. It was payback, Church was told. When Jaymie was 13, she suffered a spinal injury during a camping trip in Georgia and was hospitalized for six months in Atlanta.
Her dad stayed with her the entire time. Instead of leaving a job to do that, he brought a job with him.
“I washed cars during the day in the hospital’s parking lot,” says Church. “A lot of people in the hospital could see me from the windows, and they’d hire me to wash their cars. I washed all the doctors’ and nurses’ cars. It’s how I was making money.”
James Church’s physical status seems well above average for a man of 55. But that’s probably not all it takes to survive such an ordeal. His eyes seem to tell the rest of the story. Dark and friendly, accompanied by a ready smile, but also dark and focused, hinting at a man who’s no stranger to determination.
Spend some time with him, and you won’t be surprised when he tells you he begged off the morphine on the day after his second surgery in Orlando.
“They said, ‘Doesn’t everything hurt?’ I said yeah, it hurts,” he says.
He explains the decision.
“You don’t understand, that medicine messes up your system. They had to cut everything out, sew everything back together, then put it back in. Taking those pills, it messed up my whole system.”
Messed up the whole system? Well, since you asked …
“I was constipated for five days,” he says. “I was like a watermelon. That hurt worse than anything. My body couldn’t function like it needed to.”
But soon his internal functions were returning to form, as were his legs. Then his desire to get home. He was back in Port Orange on Jan. 16, just nine days after the strike. Just a week later, he says, he went back to his lawn crew, yet relegated himself to driving the truck from job to job … for a while.
“That got boring, so after a week I started getting on the tractor and riding around. It was a little bouncy. I could feel that.”
A few weeks later, he was back at his South Daytona martial arts studio.
Brian Brinkley, a 43-year-old area native, started taking hapkido in February with his two daughters. On his first night in the class, one of the instructors was showing him around and asked if he’d heard about the local guy who’d recently been struck by lightning at the inlet. Yes, he had.
“He tells me, ‘That’s him over there,’” Brinkley recalls. “He was in the back of the room doing push-ups! I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s an animal. He’s insane.’”
Nate Crouch, who trains under Church and helps with some instruction, laughs at the memory but not in a disbelieving way.
“I think everyone was surprised he got struck,” says Crouch, “but I don’t think we were surprised that, the second he was able, he was back here teaching classes.”
It’s also not surprising when Church says, yes, when the weather cools and the lawn business slows, he’ll return to his Saturday fishing routine, though with an obviously heightened awareness of the weather radar.
Today, Church estimates he’s at about 75 percent of his strength. With his still-healing scar tissue down the middle of his torso, he’s discouraged from lifting anything heavy. And his right arm, where the lightning traveled on its exit, sometimes gets sore during a day of work. Considering it all, he’s the picture of recovery.
“They say it’ll be a year before I’m back to normal,” he says before holding up his right hand to show the two missing fingers. “Of course, this will never be 100 percent.”
Back at the fishing jetty recently, Church had filled in some gaps from a previous detailing of his ordeal. But not quite all of them.
“This is important,” he begins, standing at the very spot where he’d been hit in January. Given the previous subject matter and its grave significance, this gets your attention.
“There was the bright orange and yellow light,” he starts. “As it came toward me, two people were right there in front of me. Right here when that light was coming in.”
He holds his two hands, about 12 inches apart, at arm’s length with palms facing him.
“I recognized one. It was my grandmother. I described the other to my mother and she thinks it was her mother’s husband. He died young. Normal faces. They’re looking at me, smiling. As that thing hit, that’s what I see.”
You read such stories, but rarely hear one first-hand, so you hang on the words.
“Here’s the other thing,” he continues. “I was shot all the way across there, hit that railing, hit the concrete. But not a bruise on me. I did have a hand mark on my neck, as if somebody caught me and laid me down. I hit that railing really hard, and that concrete. I wasn’t just dropped, I was shot across. Yet I have no bruises, no broken bones. Like somebody laid me down.”
He seems to sense his listener is prepared to offer an alternative explanation for that vision but cuts it off.
“The people I saw, it was clear as day. Two people, smiling. Clear as day.”
Lightning is random. Faith can be fleeting. Total belief is often unshakeable. Church is convinced he wasn’t really alone that morning. But, spiritual help or not, he doesn’t care to invite such visitors again.
A few weeks back, he and his lawn crew ducked into the equipment trailer to escape one of those pop-up thunderstorms that define a Florida summer. Another sign, a thundering reminder, was delivered in the South Daytona neighborhood where they were working.
“It was bright yellow, bright orange,” he says of a nearby strike they saw from the trailer. “We started freaking out. It hit about a block and a half away. Hit a tree, blew it up. Could see it clear as day; came down and blew that tree up. Tore it up. Big ol’ oak tree, demolished.”
After the storm passed and they finished the job at hand, Church and crew drove down the street to take a look at the damage. It was, to say the least, sobering.
“It did that to that tree. …” he says.
He doesn’t really have to finish the sentence, but he does.
“… How in the hell did I survive my shot?”