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A bolt out of the blue

By JEFFREY GOOD, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 1991

SARASOTA -- It stirred to life over the Gulf of Mexico, just another summer storm.

People on Siesta Key would later recall the way the storm snuck up. Not a whisper of wind or crackle of thunder. One moment, the sky was sunny. The next, it had turned a deep, inky blue.

Denise Willer was a 39-year-old travel agent, down from St. Louis for a weekend by the water. Bob Beaudry was a 62-year-old lawyer, a Siesta Key resident with a passion for thunderstorms.

They had never met. But on Aug. 24, they stepped out of houses a mile apart with the same goal: a stroll on the beach.

Bob walked alone, his bare feet splashing in the warm, salty water. Denise walked with her twin sister, her jogging shoes leaving tracks in sand as fine and white as chalk dust.

At 5:54 p.m. they passed each other, two strangers on the beach.

At that instant, the sky exploded.

"We loved thunderstorms"

The twins had it all planned.

Denise and her husband would fly in from St. Louis on Saturday, Aug. 24. Debra would pick them up in her red Chrysler convertible. The weekend itinerary: beach walks, wine spritzers and music by the Moody Blues.

Debra lives in a ranch home at the east end of Siesta Key, an island of pricey homes and condominiums just off Sarasota. Two days before her sister was to arrive, the phone rang.

"I don't think I'm going to come," Denise said.

"Why?" Debra wanted to know.

"There's just so many things going on," said Denise.

"Well, maybe it's best that you do come."

And that was that.

At age 39, the twins had different last names: Debra Wolff and Denise Willer. Different lives too. Debra divorced a year ago, and was juggling a school teacher's job and raising two daughters on Siesta Key. Denise lived with her husband in St. Louis, her life a whirl of work, tennis and friends.

But the miles and years had never kept the twins apart. They had always been together, from the time their mother went to St. Louis' Jewish Hospital on June 23, 1952, and they came howling into the world, a matched set.

The Popek twins grew up in University City, Mo., an affluent suburb of St. Louis. Their father ran a successful iron and scrap metal business. Their mother raised the girls and their older brother, helped in the family business, and tended to a corner lot decorated with a pear tree, cranberry trees and her beloved rose bushes.

Some nights, the twins would sit in their darkened bedroom and look out the window as lightning flashed across the Missouri sky.

"That's all we used to say," Debra will tell you, "how much we loved thunderstorms."

As children, the twins dressed in identical outfits, made their beds with matching spreads, and went everywhere hand-in-hand. They tried separate roommates at the University of Missouri, but ended up rooming together after only a week apart. The bond carried into adulthood, when they married older men, cut their hair short, and became exercise fanatics for fear of returning to their chubby childhood selves.

For every similarity, there was a difference.

Debra moved to Florida, while her sister chose to stay close to her parents in St. Louis. Debra was a chatterbox, while Denise kept things in. Debra oozed self-confidence, while Denise -- the brainier of the two -- always seemed to be scraping for self-esteem.

"It's like the yin and the yang," says Debra.

And like those contrasting forces, each was forever drawn to the other. They called each other "piffer" instead of sister. One would think of the other, and the phone would ring.

"We just needed to always touch," says Debra.

Despite her anxieties, Denise and Edgar flew in from St. Louis that Saturday, just as planned. Debra picked them up at the airport and drove them back to her house, built under a canopy of oak and palm trees near the beach.

Debra's youngest daughter, 8-year-old Kristen, led Aunt Dennie into her bedroom to show off some new school clothes. Debra did some laundry, while Edgar ran out for a six-pack of Coors. Then, their duties to others fulfilled, the sisters turned their attention to each other.

They changed into their jogging suits and stood together at the bedroom mirror. Even after years apart, Debra and Denise had the same trim figures, the same short brown hair, the same round faces.

"How do I look?" said Denise.

"What do you mean, "How do I look?' We look like each other," Debra shot back with a laugh. "You're so goofy!"

"And you're not?" said Denise, laughing too.

Then the talk turned serious, and the twins decided to get away by themselves. Denise wanted to head for the beach, but Debra wasn't wild about the idea. Red tide had washed in, filling the air with the smell of dead fish and the sound of scratchy coughs.

"It's really pretty disgusting," she told her sister.

But Denise, the one who usually gave in, wouldn't budge.

"Come on," she said. "Let's go."

As the sisters talked, thunderstorms boiled across Central Florida. Between 5 and 6 p.m., more than 400 flashes of lightning struck earth. But for the most part, Siesta Key had won a reprieve from the wild weather.

There was just muggy air, overcast skies -- and one freak storm.

As the twins walked out their door at 5:30, the thunderhead had grown to a width of 20 miles wide and a height of 25,000 feet. By Florida standards, it was still a welterweight, with little rain and lightning.

In the National Weather Service station in Ruskin, a wand drifted across the green eye of the radar screen, highlighting clusters of thunderstorm activity.

The radar eye barely blinked at the storm heading for Siesta Key.

Robert Balfour, the weather station's chief meteorologist, would later recall: "There was nothing through our conventional tools that said, "Hey, this is a killer.' "

A fearless sailor

Across the island from the twins, Bob Beaudry had littered his house with works-in-progress.

A 62-year-old lawyer, Bob was wrapping up a month of vacation and preparing for a tough court case. That Saturday morning, he had gotten up at 6 a.m. -- no alarm clock needed -- to take a spin on his bicycle. Then he went to work, spreading legal papers on the dining room table, on the coffee table, on every table in sight.

When he needed a break, Bob headed for the woodshop to work on the models of dolphin fish he was carving. He lay them beside color photographs of some real fish he had caught in the Keys. Trouble was, Bob was a perfectionist. And he couldn't seem to get the painted replicas to look exactly like the pictures.

By 5:30, it was time for some fresh air. The projects could wait.

"I'm going to take a walk on the beach before dinner," Bob said to his wife, Sylvia. "Do you want to go?"

"No, I don't think so," Sylvia said. Instead, she would do more reading and get the turkey ready for dinner.

By now, Sylvia knew Bob's habits well. He loved his time alone with the sand and the sea -- almost as much as he loved the time with his big, sometimes unruly family.

Bob and Sylvia had met 15 years earlier, when Bob was living aboard The Flying Swan, a 37-foot sailboat with gleaming teak decks. Both were divorced, and it wasn't long before Bob had fallen for the fair-skinned woman with the blue eyes and wry wit.

In 1976, they married. With seven kids between them, there was little time to ease into family relations. It wasn't always the Brady Bunch, but Bob had a gentle way to smooth out the tough spots.

"If we all get into the same rock tumbler," he would tell them, "some of our rough edges will come off."

Bob had grown up in Michigan, honing his sailing skills in the cold waters of a place called Thunder Bay. He brought his kids up the same way, inviting them onto the steps to watch midnight lightning storms, and making them partners on his sailing adventures through the Gulf.

Thunderstorms and hurricanes seemed to cast an especially strong spell. Bob loved the smell of approaching rain, the sudden temperature drop, the force of jagged lightning all around.

"He brought us up on the water, in boats and out of boats. No fear," says his youngest son, Tim. "He pretty much had a "go for it' attitude."

Nothing could shake that philosophy, not even the tragedy that struck just a couple of years after he and Sylvia married.

The oldest of Bob's three sons, John, set sail in a small boat across the Atlantic. The last anyone heard of him, he was east of Jacksonville, bound for England.

They never found John or his boat. Bob and his family did their best to say goodbye, and kept on sailing.

A dozen years later, on Aug. 24, Bob stepped out of his house on Avenida Del Mare. To the northwest, the sun had broken through the clouds.

The thunderstorm was still eight miles to the southwest. But it was growing at an extraordinary rate.

At 5:30, the storm was nearly five miles high and and 20 miles wide. Ten minutes later it had doubled in size, with clouds soaring in places to 50,000 feet -- a sinister celestial mountain range.

Churning inside was a chaos of wind, water and ice. As the ice particles banged against each other, they filled the cloud with static electricity.

It was an atmospheric version of what happens when a person walks across the carpet in stocking feet, knocking atomic particles around. The result is tension between negatively and positively charged particles -- tension that must find a release.

In a carpeted room, the electricity jumps through fingers to the door knob, negative particles seeking their positive mates. A little flash of lightning, a tiny crackle of thunder.

In a thunderstorm, an infinitely more powerful current rages earthward. Through whatever -- or whomever -- stands in its way.

A sister's concern

Debra and Denise walked along Midnight Pass Road in tank tops and jogging shorts. The air was thick with humidity, and across the beach, the sun was shining.

They walked through the parking lot at Siesta Beach, crossing a bridge of weathered pine to the shore.

Immediately, Debra's eyes began to water. Her throat itched. Once again, she tried to persuade her sister to turn around.

"Dennie, the red tide's so bad I haven't been here all week," she said. "Let's go."

But Denise held firm. "No, let's keep going."

Ten minutes later, the twins had swapped some small talk. But mostly they just walked, bumping shoulders, sharing laughter.

There were other people on the beach. But Debra was focusing on her sister. Until she looked over her shoulder.

"Dennie, we really should turn around and go back. I don't want to get stuck in this storm."

Denise looked at her watch.

"How about five more minutes?"

At that moment, Bob Beaudry was nearing the end of his barefooted stroll. As he walked toward the twins, maybe he did a double take, struck by the mirror images.

Or maybe he looked at the storm blackening the sky above -- nobody can say for sure.

It all happened so fast.

The storm builds

It was 5:54 p.m.

On the top floor of a nearby townhouse, hypnotherapist Chuck Borden Jr. was getting up from a nap. He walked over to the window, pulled open the shades and looked at the sky.

"Come look at this," he said to his wife, Tamera Todd. "It's black, it's just unbelievable."

Tamera rose from the bed. Suddenly, the hair on her arms stood straight up.

Not far away, 25-year-old Marnee Smith was standing on the beach. She, too, had seen the cloud. But she decided to sneak in a quick walk with her two golden retrievers, Sandy and Breathless.

She reached down to unleash the dogs, and watched them tear off toward the Gulf.

Marnee had moved from North Carolina, taking a public relations job and a house near the beach. Although she had been in Florida only a year, she had seen enough thunderstorms to know she didn't want to get caught in one.

"Get over here, Sandy!" she yelled.

The dog obeyed. But then it planted itself on the beach, refusing to move.

At that precisely that moment, Bob Beaudry and Denise Willer passed each other on Siesta Beach. Bob was walking south. Denise, twin sister at her side, walked north.

Just then, negatively charged particles raced down from the thundercloud above. Positively charged particles surged up from the damp beach, racing through the highest nearby points -- the bodies of Denise and Bob.

The particles connected, providing an invisible tunnel from cloud to earth. Suddenly, more that 20-billion watts of electricity -- enough to power the entire state at that instant -- raged down from the sky.

A flash of impossibly white light.

A column of fire five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

A thunder boom that shooks walls a mile away.

The lightning first struck Bob, burning a hole through his head, incinerating his yellow shorts, hurling him to the sand. Then it leaped toward Denise, hitting her in the face, searing her body and flinging her to the beach.

Debra heard the thunder before everything went black. When she came to, she was face down in the sand, surrounded by several others who had been stunned by the lightning.

She looked to the side to see Denise, also face down, her charred sneaker lying nearby.

She shook her sister.

"Dennie! Dennie!"

But Denise didn't respond. Her face had turned blue, and she wasn't breathing. Debra stood up and looked frantically around.

"Help!"

"What Can I Do?"

From their window, Chuck Borden and Tamera Todd saw the lightning and heard the thunderclap. They saw people falling to the beach, then scurrying around, panic plain on their faces.

Then they saw the man and the woman, motionless on the ground.

"I'll dial 911," Chuck said.

"I'm going to go out there," his wife replied.

She sprinted down the steps and out the beach path. Two boys in swim suits, their eyes bright with fear, pedaled madly past her on BMX bikes. She winced with a sudden pain. She hadn't put shoes on, and now she had five sandspurs imbedded in her feet.

She paused to yank them out, then ran toward the crowd. A half-dozen people were gathered around the woman on the ground. She recognized one of them, Debra, from morning jogs around Siesta Key.

"What can I do to help?" she said.

Debra pointed to the woman administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to her sister. "This lady's a nurse," she said.

Tamera, a chiropractor, had taken some CPR courses. She noticed that there was only one man helping the other victim, so she went to his side. While the man compressed Bob Beaudry's chest, she breathed into his mouth. She saw that his face had turned blue.

The man checked Bob's neck and armpit.

"I'm not getting any pulse," he said.

Tamera tried, and felt nothing either. "Where are the paramedics?" she demanded. "Where are they?"

The waves kept tugging at Bob, pulling him away from those trying to revive him. Careful not to move his head, they dragged him back up on the sand. Then the rain came, pounding so hard they couldn't see five feet in front of them.

As Tamera worked, she prayed. She heard Debra Wolff sobbing nearby.

"This is my twin sister. I can't lose her!"

A dreaded trip

At the Beaudrys' house, Sylvia heard the thunder and then the rain. She thought of Bob.

"Well, he's really going to be wet when he comes out," she said to her 31-year-old son, Andy Coleman.

They chuckled at the thought of Bob returning, water running down his round face, his white knit shirt and yellow shorts plastered to his skin.

About 7 p.m., Sylvia started to worry. It just wasn't like Bob to stay gone so long without calling. She sent Andy to the neighbors to see if Bob had stopped by, while she walked over to the beach.

She saw people wandering around, but no signs of trouble. She walked back home, picked up the phone and called Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Bob had left his wallet at home, so if there was some trouble, nobody would be able to identify him.

"Has there been an accident on Siesta Key where you may have picked up an unidentified man?" she asked the nurse.

"We did have someone brought in, but we can't give you any information. You'll have to contact the sheriff's department."

Sylvia was getting nervous now. She dialed the number the nurse had given her.

"I guess I want to file a missing person's report," she said. "I called the hospital and they said they had an unidentified man there."

Once again, the voice on the phone could not ease her worry. "The deputy will be out to take a report."

It was around 9 p.m. when the deputy finally arrived. And he wasn't alone; two of them came in separate cars.

"Please sit down, Mrs. Beaudry," one of the deputies told her. "Lighting struck and killed two people at the beach, and we think one of them is your husband. You're the only one who called in."

"We'd like you to come to the hospital to identify him."

She rode in an unmarked cruiser to the hospital. She waited -- an eternity, it seemed -- in a conference room with soft lights and comfortable chairs. Finally, she was led into the morgue.

Bob lay there on a gurney, his eyes partially open and a red bruise on his neck and ear. "Bob doesn't look dead," she thought to herself. "He just looks hurt."

Debra Wolff went to the hospital, too, driven there by some of the strangers who had helped her sister. While they awaited news from the doctors inside, a man and a woman held her hand and urged her to join in their prayers.

"Pray," they said, "Let's think positive."

But Debra couldn't. She just closed her eyes and thought of her sister lying there on the beach. It sounded funny to say it, but at that instant, she felt her sister's spirit come inside of her.

"I know she is gone," she thought.

A twist of fate?

They were both gone.

On Aug. 24, Bob Beaudry and Denise Willer died from a single flash of lightning. Although the paramedics arrived only minutes after the lightning strike, neither they nor bystanders were able to revive Bob and Denise.

They are among 92 people who have been killed or injured by lightning in Florida this year, the highest number since weather officials began keeping track in 1959, according to a recent estimate.

The lightning that struck Bob and Denise has captured the attention of scientists as far away as Colorado. It was all so strange.

Why did an otherwise quiet storm suddenly throw down a deadly thunderbolt as it approached Siesta Beach?

And why -- with dozens of people on the beach, including Denise's twin sister at her side -- did the lightning single out the two strangers passing by one another?

Theories abound. A sudden rush of warm air from the beach may have stirred up the cloud's electrical charges, causing a split-second lightning storm. Bob and Denise may have walked into the spot where lightning found the path of least resistance. Perhaps the events were shaped by some divine hand.

No one knows for sure.

Says meteorologist Robert Balfour: "It was kind of the bolt out of the blue."

Two days after Bob Beaudry's death, the Sarasota City Commission passed a resolution praising his work as a founder of a teen drug-treatment program, calling him an "exemplary citizen." A week later, his widow and children packed a boat with his favorite beer -- Pabst Blue Ribbon -- and threw his ashes to the rising tide.

His long-time law partner, John J. Lyons, delivered a tribute at a crowded memorial service.

"The deeper message in the life of Bob Beaudry is summed up beautifully, I believe, in the words of Albert Einstein: "Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value."

Those who knew and loved Denise Willer also grieved. For a woman who never failed to ham it up for a camera, who showered her nieces with attention, who always ended phone calls to her sister with the words "I love you."

A month after her death, her twin sister walked through the sea oats to the place where the lightning struck. It's one of the widest spots on Siesta Beach, a place where the high tides have washed out a shallow gully and turned the sand a faint red.

People ask Debra if it hurts to return. She misses her sister more each day, she says, but she finds some peace here.

"It wasn't the beach that killed her. The beach was someplace that Dennie and I loved to go."

* * *

About this story

This article was based on interviews with witnesses, relatives of the victims, government meteorologists Robert A. Balfour, Ray Biedinger and Ronald L. Holle, and Philip Krider, director of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Arizona. Information also came from police and medical examiner reports, the National Weather Service, Atmospheric Research Systems Inc., GeoMet Data Services Inc. and Siesta Key resident Lee Cain. Times researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.