Lightning strike kills 1, injures 18 in Florida

/ Source: The Associated Press

A lightning strike at a Fourth of July gathering in central Florida killed one person and 18 others were taken to hospitals, officials said Saturday.

About 100 people from a church group were outside playing soccer and volleyball in Lakeland, about 30 miles east of Tampa, when a lightning bolt or series of strikes hit nearby, seemingly out of nowhere, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.

Benjamin Gonzalez, 30, who was playing soccer, was hit and collapsed. He was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead. Eighteen others were hospitalized and nine more treated at the scene.

Judd said their injuries were not life-threatening, with symptoms including numbness and tingling.

"It's very sad to see folks just celebrating the Fourth, in a way that you would hope people would celebrate the Fourth, with friends and family, and a lightning strike, an act of God occurred, and one person died," Judd said.

Authorities were called to the Iglesia Bautista Maranatha's property at about 4:40 p.m.

Prior to that, the afternoon had all the makings of a festive holiday: Men were playing soccer; trophies, apparently soon to be awarded, stood nearby. Women played volleyball and children came with their families.

Witnesses said there was some cloud build up in the area, but it wasn't enough to alarm anyone, Judd said.

"This is Florida," Judd said. "There's build up every afternoon."

Six ambulances and two fire trucks were dispatched to the scene. Victims were transported to hospitals in Lakeland, Plant City and Bartow.

Judd said there was no damage to the field, trees or a barn nearby, so it is unclear where the lightning hit. The sheriff arrived shortly thereafter, and described the church members as "exceptionally composed considering the tragedy."

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has said lightning causes more deaths in Florida than all other weather hazards combined, including hurricanes and tornadoes, and that Florida has more lightning casualties than any other state.

According to the National Weather Service, there are about 1.5 million lightning strikes a year in Florida.