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Lightning produces frights, one blaze

Two Publix employees say lightning stunned them. A house fire was ignited by a bolt, but another was not.

Published July 28, 2006

Lightning bolts from a fierce line of thunderstorms Thursday afternoon started a fire that displaced a Dunedin family and were believed to have delivered minor shocks to two people in a Publix parking lot in Clearwater.

And if that wasn't enough, a fire not related to the weather at a Clearwater retirement home kept firefighters busy, too.

No one was seriously injured in any of the three incidents, authorities said.

* * *

There was no rain, but he noticed the lightning.

Publix meat manager Michael Miley spent his lunch time Thursday in the store's parking lot on Island Way. He sat in his car the whole hour, listening to Elvis Crespo. Out in this small Clearwater Beach neighborhood, some electricity had started crackling through the sky.

About 1:55 p.m., Miley got out of his Nissan. About the same time, a blond Publix cashier got out of her car. Both started walking back to the store.

Then, in an instant, Miley saw a white burst.

"There was a big flash. I felt a surge through my bones. My fingers felt all tingly, and the hair was standing on my arms," the 46-year-old said.

A lightning bolt apparently had hit somewhere close by. Miley thinks an electrical charge zipped through the ground and surged into him.

But Miley decided to just "shake it off." He walked inside the supermarket, figuring that going back to work would lessen the numbness he felt in his arms and legs.

The cashier, who is in her mid 20s, also walked back to the store. But she was crying.

"I feel really weird," Miley recalled her saying.

"She said she thought she was struck by lightning," said Publix customer service manager Mary Cherry.

Cherry called 911, and paramedics examined her in the store's back room.

"She was not sure she was hit by lightning. She just felt she thought she was," said Clearwater Fire division Chief Steve Strong. "She was fine. She was talking like you and me. She was normal."

The woman, whose name was not released, was taken to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Her condition was not available Thursday.

And less than two hours after the incident, Miley was still at work. The numbness had gone away, though he had a headache.

"Yeah, regular bone skinless," Miley told an employee.

* * *

About 2:30 p.m., Doug Worrell took a break from researching car loans online and walked to his living room for a nap on the couch.

Thirty seconds later, he heard a loud bang and saw a flash outside the computer room of his Dunedin home.

"It looked like a big bright ball," said Worrell, 31.

A bolt of lightning struck his house, near a spot he had just walked by.

He jumped up and walked out back to investigate. He didn't find any smoke, but called 911 anyway.

Arriving at 2:40 p.m., the first engine saw smoke coming from the peak of the roof and ridge vents. Nine units from Dunedin, Clearwater, Safety Harbor and Palm Harbor responded to the scene, and the fire was under control by 2:59 p.m., Deputy Fire Marshal Kelly Intzes said.

Firefighters broke away the ceiling to attack the fire, leaving a 5-foot-wide hole outside the computer room, where the lightning struck, and three other holes in the ceiling nearby.

Power to the house was turned off by Progress Energy.

Hours later, pieces of the ceiling and insulation coated the kitchen countertop and nearby floors, which were covered by tarps.

Friends and family arrived to console Worrell, his wife, Cyndi, and son Brian.

And Red Cross workers offered food and lodging for the next few days.

Intzes estimated about $4,000 or $5,000 in damages but said electrical and structural inspections were also planned.

Worrell, who was home from work recuperating from surgery on his left leg, said he was glad he was there to prevent further damage to his house. But he was still shaken by the close call.

"Trust me, it's no fun when lightning hits 20 feet away," Worrell said.

* * *

At 3:28 p.m., managers of the Highland Terrace Retirement Center, 1520 Jeffords St., called 911 to report a fire in a fifth-floor unit.

Seventeen units - including five engines, three ladder trucks, three district chiefs, four chief officers, one fire inspector and an ambulance - arrived at the seven-story building a few minutes later, said Clearwater fire division Chief Strong.

Firefighters found the flames coming from a sofa bed were nearly out and quickly doused them with a hand-held water extinguisher.

The damage was limited to the back and one side of the sofa bed. No one was injured.

The resident of the unit was not home, but investigators traced the problem to a shorted-out extension cord that got overloaded beneath the weight of the couch.

Meanwhile, about two dozen elderly residents who were evacuated from the building huddled on the porch beside a tray lined with cups of juice.

Everyone returned inside once the all-clear came, except for the owner of the sofa, who Strong predicted would likely spend the night in another unit so the staff could clean up from the fire.

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 23:06:15]

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