Lightning strike sends wood flying

(Originally published in the Telegraph on 5/13/08)

ALTON - A bolt from the blue struck a large tree in the 1700 block of Muny Vista Drive, sending charred wood and splinters flying hundreds of feet Tuesday morning.

"It was like a bomb hit it," Paul Woulfe said.

Woulfe, maintenance man at Hillcrest Apartments on Muny Vista, was among those cleaning up the mess left after the impact from the lightning strike flung chunks of a 40-foot-tall cottonwood tree all over the complex's parking lot, some of them as large as 5 feet long and weighing 40 pounds, he said.

The scene generally is behind the construction site of the new Kohl's store, just off Homer Adams Parkway. The lightning blew out the side of the tree, leaving a gaping hole in the trunk.

"You could see where lightning traveled through the tree," Woulfe said. "It blew a hole about one-and-a-half feet in the ground."

Workers at the Kohl's site witnessed the strike as they sat in a truck. One of them said it was odd that it was not raining at the time of the explosion.

"I think it shook them up pretty good," Woulfe said.

It remained unclear Tuesday on whose property the tree stood. The nearest residence is some distance away but close enough that a screen was blown off the house by the blast.

A few of the construction men left their work site to inspect the damage. The men expressed their astonishment at the lightning's suddenness to Woulfe, while he and several of the senior citizens who live in Hillcrest cleaned up debris.

Woulfe agreed about the bizarre nature of the situation. The deafening crash surprised him, because it had been raining quietly.

"That was the only crack of thunder I heard up to that point," he said.

The explosion lasted only an instant and sounded as loud as a shotgun blast, witnesses said. The sound could be heard for miles.

Woulfe said he thought the lightning struck in the wooded area nearby until he received a telephone call from Hillcrest Apartments manager Diana Bouillon.

Bouillon said the incident occurred at 10:38 a.m. That same minute, Hillcrest resident Sue Kelley, who witnessed the explosion, called to inform Bouillon that the bolt hit a tree in front of their building. Bouillon stepped outside, found the parking lot strewn with wood scraps and called Woulfe at 10:41 a.m. to begin cleanup.

Kelley, 67, described the surreal experience of watching the event from her east-facing room on the third floor.

"My chair faces out the window at the tree," she said. "I was just sitting there looking out when a huge blue streak of lightning hit the tree. Huge pieces of the trunk blew off. It just looked like leaves were blowing around until I stood up and saw debris flying. The boom I heard was huge. I would have thought something blew up if I hadn't seen it happen."

"She really had a front-and-center seat," Woulfe said.

The aftermath of the explosion was "really weird-looking," Kelley said. "It scraped the whole side off the tree. It looked like someone took a bite and peeled it off."

Resident Sue Loftis had been in the middle of a phone call and "just happened to be looking out the window," she said.

"I could see the flash when it hit," Loftis said. "I heard a loud bang like something got busted open. That's what made me jump."

"Oh my goodness, it was just like a flash," said Shirley Ross, another resident. "I said to myself, ‘Well, that just hit really close.' Anybody around could have heard that."

With the help of Hillcrest residents, Woulfe cleaned up the majority of the yard waste in an hour. Some chunks and splinters still littered the road and the front yard of a police officer's nearby home, Woulfe said.