The year was 1976 and I was observing at Mount Hopkins when I was struck by lightning during a classic mountain storm. Many people ask me about it, and whereas I remember very little because I was unconscious, the incident raised safety concerns and instigated review reports that I have seen.
It was an ordinary weekend afternoon and only two people were on the mountain when a storm started approaching from the west. Ed Horine phoned me from Amado and told me that the storm was approaching, and would I please disconnect his building from the power mains. We normally disconnect the buildings to prevent a strike anywhere on the grid from overloading the electronics in our buildings. So I told him, "Sure Ed, I'll disconnect your building, but I've never done yours so I'll call you back when I've done it." That little precaution probably saved my life.
I walked over to his building, watching the approaching storm, and the big disconnect switch was in the up position so I lowered it to the down position, and heard something unexpected; the diesel electric power generator on the other end of the ridge loaded up like it was under a big load. I thought that was strange, and decided to report it to Ed, whom I promptly called on the phone. But his line was busy, and as I hung up the phone I said to myself, "Ed's going to tell me I'm crazy; I'll repeat the experiment." I headed back to his building, and noticed that the storm was becoming more menacing, but its center was still about 3 miles away.
I remember entering the transformer and switching cage and looking at the disconnect switch and saying to myself, "That's an ugly f*** switch," and that's the last thing I remember.
The rest I had to read about. Ed Horine remembered I had said I would call back, and called me. No answer. So he called the Satelite Tracking building and raised Al Almazan, and told him I wasn't answering. Al tried the phone, and then drove over but couldn't find me in or around my building, and reported back to Ed. By now the rain was beginning, and Al would have preferred to stay indoors, but Ed insisted, "Rudy was there 15 minutes ago; I talked to him on the phone. Better find him."
Al drove over and again checked my building, and then Ed's building, and when he found me I was boots up, 10 feet from the electrical cage, head down the mountain, and my glasses and flashlight inside the cage. He immediately blew the whistle.
By good fortune an observer was just arriving at the mountaintop to assist Al for the evening. The arriving observer had just completed his Air Force service as Air Police, and he had excellent first-aid training. He found the weakest pulse and searched for oxygen bottles. Superintendant Don Hogan headed up the mountain immediately and arrived in 20 min record time, and others enquired about rescue airlift.
The local Air Base was no help, but by chance the U.S. Forest Service had noticed the approaching storm and had warmed up a chopper and gathered a crew because of expected fires. They were able to set out almost immediately.
With the chopper on the way, the gathering Mt Hopkins staff started to make preparations to land a chopper. Unfortunately the day before a truck load of transformers had been delivered to the Observatory, and the transformers were unloaded to the only open site, the designated helicopter landing pad. There was another open spot but it was spoiled by a big military truck with a discharged battery, which would not respond to jump start efforts. But careful measurement showed that the chopper could land with 6 feet of clearance for the rotor on each side.
By the time the chopper was close to the mountaintop, the storm had closed in and the pilot could no longer see the ridge. The wind had picked up and fog was roiling by. How could the chopper land under these conditions?
A telephone-radio link was established between the mountain crew and the pilot through the local telephone and the Forest Service radio nets. Several vehicles were parked around the makeshift helipad with their engines running and headlights blazing. The pilot was advised, "We hear you but don't see you. We estimate your position due west and distance less than a mile." Finally a visible sighting was made, and the pilot, a recent Vietnam veteran, eased the chopper to a landing on the windswept ridge with the 6 feet of rotor clearance. I consider that if I someday find the pilot, I owe him a case of fine wine.
By this point I was being administered oxygen from all the oxygen bottles that could be collected on the mountain, and my irregular heartbeat and breathing were occasionally assisted. The Tucson medical center was alerted and I was flown off the ridge. The chopper landed and I was rushed into the emergency room.
The first I remember of the event was lying on the emergency room table and hearing my name, I opened my eyes to see rows of fluorescent lights and a row of medics on each side of me. "I don't want any part of this," I said to myself, and I drifted off. But I was revived again, and this time it took.
I was found to have burns on my legs and feet, but returned to work after a few days in the hospital. I never had any 'near death' experience that I can recall. I noticed tha mountain staff watching me very carefully for the next few days, but nobody found me any goofier than normal despite my subtle efforts. A safety review days later showed that the building disconnect switch had been mounted upside down and someone had already disconnected the building, so when I threw the switch the first time I had actually connected the building to the mountain power grid. This explains the generator loading I had noticed.
Some years later, I had a fever and in a delerious state I suddenly noticed that in a dream I was beginning to recall the experience. But as soon as I realized this and tried to focus on the recall, it vanished again.
I owe my life to many individuals, whom I thank. Ed Horine, Al Almazan, Don Hogan, and the helicopter pilot and crew. I suspect that there were more, but how would I know?
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