Amid Grief, Family and Friends Recall Events Before Fatal Lightning Strike

Kainen Patterson, 5, adds a bouquet of flowers to the makeshift memorial along the fence near the site of the fatal lightning strike at the Lee Hill Park.
Kainen Patterson, 5, adds a bouquet of flowers to the makeshift memorial along the fence near the site of the fatal lightning strike at the Lee Hill Park. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

Thanks to the run he scored, 12-year-old Chelal Gross-Matos's Little League team was leading, 1-0, in the first inning when the umpire ordered everyone off the Fredericksburg area ballfield because of a gathering storm, a teammate recalled yesterday.

As players and parents filed to their cars about 6:30 Wednesday night, Chelal, with another teammate, did what many boys his age would do when the excitement of game day gives way to the disappointment of a cancellation: They tossed the ball around at the last minute as they made their way off the field, their parents standing close by, authorities said.

Suddenly, a bolt of lightning blasted into the outfield, the massive charge striking Chelal, then jumping to his 11-year-old teammate, authorities say they believe. Chelal was killed. The younger boy remained hospitalized in critical condition and on a ventilator yesterday in Richmond, but had shown a promising sign by following a doctor's finger movements with his eyes, said 1st Sgt. Liz Scott, a Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

"It was like a grenade," said one of Chelal's teammates, Richard Albright, 11, who returned to the ballfield at Lee Hill Park with his mom yesterday morning. A few bouquets of flowers and a single baseball sat against the chain-link fence in left field.

"It's the last thing, absolute last thing, any of us expected," said a devastated Robert Matos, Chelal's dad, in an interview with WJLA (Channel 7). "A beautiful life, a good kid, got taken."

As grief and disbelief spread through the community, many struggled to reconcile the improbable odds.

Although about 25 million lightning flashes occurred last year in the United States, there were just 28 fatal strikes nationwide, including one in Virginia Beach that killed a 23-year-old jogger, according to National Weather Service data. The United States has averaged 58 fatal lightning strikes each year over the past three decades.

Such fatalities are far more common in the Southeast, especially in Florida, where strikes are more abundant and people spend a lot of time outdoors. Virginia has had 10 lightning fatalities over the past decade, Maryland has had five and there have been none during that period in the District, according to the Weather Service.

"People don't know that when they hear thunder, even a distant rumble, they need to react quickly," said John Jensenius, lightning safety expert at the Weather Service, adding that fatality rates have dropped dramatically as people have become more aware of the dangers and have planned accordingly. "Anytime anybody is outdoors and a thunderstorm is within 10 miles, there is a risk of people being struck."

Still, for many, the confluence of events -- the timing of the storm, the team schedule, Chelal's position on the field -- seemed difficult to comprehend.

"Completely chance, freak sort of thing," said Melvin J. Brown, principal of Chancellor Middle School, where Chelal was in the sixth grade.

He said that efforts by some to assign blame were ill-founded and that Chelal and his friend were just "being boys," trying to get in some last minutes of fun before packing it in for the night.

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