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Lightning Myths Debunked

Man, lightning
CBS/The Early Show
Hurricanes may catch the headlines, and tornados often get caught on tape.

But this and summer, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan, the real weather worry is one that's over in a flash.

It's lightning, which kills more people every year than hurricanes and tornados combined.

In Yellowstone National Park this June, tourists were waiting for Old Faithful to erupt when the skies erupted instead.

A bolt hit just 15 yards from the boardwalk where 1,000 tourists were standing. Eleven were injured, including a 12-year-old boy.

CBS News showed tape of the strike to lightning researcher Ron Holle, who says, "This is one of the closest strikes to people that I've ever seen. All those people should not be out there at that point. No one was taking the threat seriously even though there was thunder really close by."

Blame that, in part experts say, on a lack of understanding of lightning as a whole.

For starters, Cowan says, take its frequency: "We hear it all the time, 'Your chances of getting struck by lightning are astronomical.' Not quite. In fact, your chances of being either killed or injured by lightning (in your lifetime) are about one in 3,000. If the odds of the lottery were that low, you'd probably play every week."

No one, says Cowan, knows myth versus reality better than Mike Utley, who was struck by lightning five years ago on a putting green in Cape Cod.

"I don't have any memory of the incident. … Nothing," Utley tells Cowan. "The guys were 10, 15 feet in front of me and, 'Bang!' They heard a loud bang and they turned around and they saw me. I was stumbling, smoke coming from my body, and just fell to the ground."

Craig Rockwood, who was in the foursome behind Utley's, says, "It was the loudest noise I'd ever heard. I looked toward the green and I saw Michael lying on the green, and my initial reaction was, 'That's not funny.' "

Utley barely survived.

"I look physically pretty much the same as I did before I got hurt," he says, "but I don't run the same."

Nonetheless, says Cowan, his survival can debunk a lot of myths about what happens when lightening strikes.

For instance, did his metal putter attract the lightning?

"Metal will conduct lightning once it's been hit but metal does not attract lightning," says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper of the University of Illinois.

Another myth: Utley's rubber-soled shoes insulated him from the strike.

Not so, either, says Cooper: "By the time it's burned its way all that way through the air, it doesn't care what it's hitting, whether it's metal, Styrofoam or your hair. Lightning puts a new emphasis on reach out and touch somebody — it will reach out and touch you six, eight, 10 miles away."

Utley spends most of his time with kids, debunking a host of lightning myths.

And when he's not working on his Web site, he answers questions from adults, as well.

Some 20 million lighting bolts strike the United States every year, Cowan says, and this year there will be about 1,000 people just like him, who feel it right down to their toes.