Something that all kids dream about during the early days of spring, as the school year winds down and the sunshine begins to feel warmer every day.
Many adults also get excited with the thought of those halcyon days of vacation spent at the beach or other relaxing spots.
Most surveyors also appreciate those warm summer days when there’s plenty of daylight to get the work done and no painful or numb fingers from the cold winter wind. Oh yes, it does mean that there will surely be some perspiration, especially when construction stakeout requires some hubs and stakes to be driven in the sunbaked earth on the graded site. It also means biting insects, poison ivy and lots of vegetation on the surveyed lines to be cut.
With the enjoyable warmth and sunshine of summer come some added dangers to the safety of the surveyor in the field. When the unseen bee nest is smashed open by the unsuspecting surveyor trying to clear some vegetation off of the surveyed line, those swarming, biting devils can make life very uncomfortable for the victim of their stings, and in some rare cases, cause death. Venomous snakes are another peril that has a higher probability to cause serious problems, including death. This story is about another high-risk phenomenon that surveyors face during the summer: lightning.
One day in 1989, while I was employed by Fox & Associates, Inc., in Hagerstown, Maryland, I was leading a three-man crew on a boundary survey in southern Washington County, MD. We were traversing along the edge of the property in an abandoned and overgrown apple orchard. It was a typical July day, with high temperatures, high humidity and sunshine, but with a threat of thunderstorms.
While setting the tripod with a prism over the foresight point, I noticed dark clouds rolling in from the west. Focusing my attention on the optical plummet, I continued the setup. Blue skies were overhead but the storm began to brew as thunder rumbled in the distance. Knowing the survey truck, and the only shelter available from the storm, was about 1,000 feet down through the woods, I surmised there was enough time to complete the setup and still have time to make the trek to the waiting refuge before the approaching storm broke loose.
My attention to getting the tribrach leveled on the tripod was interrupted by an explosion in the fence line about 25 feet from where I stood! The flash of light that accompanied this cracking boom was hot and felt like a flash fire on the skin of my face. I was caught so unaware of what had just happened that I instantly reflected on another experience that was similar to try to understand what had just occurred. The blinding flash and enormous blast that accompanied it were very similar to what I experienced once when a .308 rifle was fired on a dim-lit day while I was standing slightly in front of the muzzle, but off to the side.
I remained standing for a second as this information raced through my mind, but quickly dropped to the ground when I felt my skin tingle and the hair on the back of my neck stand up! As I lay there with my head pressed into the dirt, I realized that I was not ready to die. My kids were young and I wanted to see them grow up, but I wasn’t sure if another lightning strike would kill me in the next second!
The instrument man, Tim Shank, started anxiously yelling to me to see where I was because when he saw and heard the bright flash of lightning from where he was standing next to the instrument about 300 feet away, he knew that it was very close to where he had just seen me with the tripod. When he looked and saw me lying on the ground, he feared the worst. I was too busy praying to answer him and I didn’t want to stand up to yell back. After a few shouts, I raised my head and hollered, “Yes, I’m fine. Get to the truck”.
Before we could get the equipment picked up, those dark clouds came over us and started peppering us with large-sized raindrops which drenched us as we scampered down the wooded hillside toward the survey truck with thunder booming around us. I asked where the rodman was and Tim told me that he took off for the truck as soon as the first strike hit! He was standing there waiting for us when we arrived at the truck.
Before that day, I never worried about lightning. I would always be disappointed when golf or baseball play had to be suspended because of a distant rumble of thunder. Today, I have a whole different perspective and respect for electrical storms that can sometimes deliver a bolt from the blue.