By: Brad Dison
Roy Sullivan was born in 1912 in Greene County, Virginia. Beginning in 1936, Roy spent his whole working life as a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Friends described Roy as being “as gentle and upright as a person can be. He pays his bills, loves his family, goes to church, has never harmed a soul.”
In April of 1942, a thunderstorm blew into the national park. Roy took refuge in a newly-built fire tower. Unbeknownst to Roy, the fire tower’s lightning rods had not been installed. Lightning struck the tower up to eight times and set it on fire. Roy said, “fire was jumping all over the place.” Roy ran from the burning tower when… BOOM!!! The lightning struck Roy and traveled down his right leg. The powerful strike left a burn mark down his leg, blew his big toe nail off, and left a hole in his shoe. For 27 years, Roy thought that getting struck by lightning was a once in a lifetime sort of thing.
In July 1969, Roy was driving his truck with the windows down in the mountains during a lightning storm. Roy felt safe because the body of the truck and its rubber tires would normally have provided protection against a lightning strike. A bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree and deflected into the truck’s open window. Roy was momentarily knocked unconscious and, luckily, the truck slowed and eventually stopped safely. The heat from the strike singed off his eyebrows and eyelashes, and caught his hair on fire.
In July 1970, Roy was in his front yard when a bolt of lightning struck an electrical transformer and deflected to Roy’s left side. The heat from the lightning bolt seared his left shoulder.
On April 16, 1972, Roy was working in a ranger station when a bolt of lightning struck a fuse box and arced onto him, which set his hair on fire. Roy used a wet towel to douse the fire in his hair.
After getting struck by lightning four times, Roy kept a can of water with him just in case his hair caught on fire as it had twice before. He also got into the habit of pulling over and getting down into the floorboard of his truck if a storm came up while he was driving.
On August 7, 1973, Roy was driving in the park when he saw a storm cloud forming. He quickly drove in the opposite direction to what he thought was a safe distance. He got out of his truck and … BOOM!!! He was struck by lightning again. The lightning traveled down his left side and blew his left shoe off. Once again, Roy’s hair caught fire. He retrieved his water can from his truck and doused his hair.
On June 5, 1976, Roy was checking a campground when he noticed a storm cloud above him. He tried to run to his truck but was struck by lightning. As before, his hair caught fire and he doused it with his water can.
When asked why lightning was attracted to him, Roy responded, “Lordy, I wish I knew. It’s awful. I don’t believe God is after me. If He was, the first bolt would have been enough… Best I can figure is that I have some chemical, some mineral, in my body that draws lightning. I just wish I knew.”
Roy pointed out that he “wasn’t right in the storm all those times. Once I was a good 10 miles away. But if there is a single dark cloud in the sky, out will come a bolt and get me.”
Roy said, “Just before it strikes, I smell a certain smell, like sulfur, and my hair bristles all over. That’s the signal. In about two seconds, no longer than three, it hits.” By the time Roy recognized the signals, it was never enough time to hide. “Ever been shocked real bad?” Roy asked one reporter. “It’s worse. Ever been scalded? It’s much worse. It’s like being cooked inside your skin.”
News of Roy’s unfortunate ability to attract lightning spread through the region. While walking with the chief ranger at the park one day, lightning struck way in the distance. The chief ranger said, “I’ll see you later, Roy,” and quickly distanced himself from Roy. Some local restaurants were off limits to Roy, especially during storms, and some of them refused to let him enter if the sky was overcast. “I can’t blame them,” Roy said. “Who wants to be near somebody that’s all the time getting hit by lightning?”
In 1976, Roy Sullivan retired from his beloved job at Shenandoah National Park. While working as a park ranger, Roy lived within the park itself, one of the many perks of the job. Once he retired, Roy had to move out of the park. He and his family bought a house trailer and a little piece of land near the park.
Roy took precautions to protect himself and his family from lightning strikes. He installed a lightning rod on all four corners of his trailer house. He attached lightning rods to each of the six tall trees on his property. He even attached a lightning rod to his electric meter pole and his television antenna. Each of the twelve lightning rods was connected to a heavy-duty large-diameter pure copper wire which Roy drove seven feet into the ground. He kept the ground on his property wet. During storms, Roy’s wife and three children stayed in the living room while Roy sat in the kitchen.
On June 25, 1977, Roy fished from the bank at a pond near his home. There were no storm clouds in the sky and Roy felt safe. BOOM!!! Lightning struck his head, traveled down his body and burned his chest and stomach. Once again, Roy’s hair caught fire.
Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times and holds the Guinness World Record for surviving the most lightning strikes. Many of us would have taken the name of the small town Roy moved to in Virginia following his retirement as a bad omen. It was called Dooms.
- Most Lightning Strikes Survived, GuinnessWorldRecords.com, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-lightning-strikes-survived.
- The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), October 23, 1977, p.16.