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Lightning victim: 'I was helpless'

By JACOB H. FRIES
Published July 26, 2005


CLEARWATER BEACH - Casey Douglas didn't see a flash or hear the sky crackle.

One moment, she and fiance Darrell Fults were getting out of the water, wary of the dark cloud on the horizon. The next, she felt paralyzed, lying in waist-deep surf. She was apparently unconscious but thought she was screaming out loud for Fults.

"I just remember, when I went down, I remember looking in the water ...," the 19-year-old said Monday. "I was helpless."

Douglas, one of five beachgoers struck by lightning during a brief but violent storm Saturday, spoke for the first time publicly Monday at Morton Plant Hospital. Fults, 22, remained at the hospital and may be released later this week, said Douglas, who was released Monday.

Douglas and Fults, both of Franklin, Tenn., had been at the beach for about an hour Saturday when a storm rolled in shortly before 5 p.m.

"Let's get out of the water," Douglas recalled Fults saying. "Let's go wait it out in our car."

Fults helped Douglas through the waves as they neared the shore, she said.

Then, there's a break in Douglas' recollection. She doesn't recall being struck by lightning.

According to witnesses and officials, the lightning bolt flickered for about three seconds, injuring five people. The electricity appeared to lift Fults out of the water before dropping him in the surf.

Bystanders performed CPR on the victims while others flagged down a nearby firetruck.

Witnesses have since told Douglas she was unresponsive after the lightning strike and had no pulse. Still, in her mind's eye, she recalls yelling for Fults, desperately hoping to find him.

"I was scared for my fiance," she said. "All I wanted was my fiance."

In the ambulance, Douglas could not summon her own name and instead told paramedics she was Darrell Fults and gave his birth date, she said. Once in the hospital, she slowly began to remember.

Now, she has almost returned to normal, though her heart hurts, apparently from bruising sustained during CPR, Douglas said. She said she is trying to be strong for Fults and their 1-month-old son, James.

She spoke with Darrell earlier Monday.

"He knows who I am and he knows I'm his fiance and he knows who our son is," Douglas said.

Doctors have told her he should make a full recovery without any lingering consequences.

Stephen Haire, Morton Plant's medical director, said a lightning strike can cause a person's heart to beat at an abnormal rhythm, which stops blood flow. It can also affect breathing.

"The brain forgets that it's supposed to breath," Haire said.

That is what usually kills a victim. But if help arrives within three to five minutes, as it did Saturday, chances are good they will recover, the emergency room doctor said.

Gentry Fox, Fults' stepfather and an assistant fire chief in Tennessee, sat next to Douglas while she addressed reporters. Fox was quick to deliver his appreciation.

"I can't say enough for the bystanders on the beach and Clearwater Fire Rescue. They did an excellent job," Fox said. "It was a very unusual chain of events that occurred and if only one of the links in the chain failed, it would have been a totally different outcome."

--Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 445-4156 or jfries@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 26, 2005, 01:15:21]


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