Rain began to pour down on the mountainous Rwandan village Saturday afternoon just as a preacher stepped to the pulpit.
Adventists celebrate the sabbath on Saturdays and in the congregation were hundreds of people, all gathered for a service at the Gihemvu Seventh-day Adventist Church, an old church with no electricity in the southern district of Nyaruguru. The church did not have a lightning rod, because it had no way to pay for one to be installed, Jacqueline Benhirwe, the district’s disaster management officer, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
It was a special occasion — a visiting choir was performing — so the service lasted a bit longer than usual.
“Suddenly, there was a big bang,” Emmanuel Ruremesha, a church elder who was at the altar, told Rwanda’s New Times.
A lightning bolt struck the church, electrifying the congregation with a force that knocked most people to the ground. “We all fell down for minutes,” Ruremesha said.
Eleven people were instantly killed, Mayor Habitegeko Francois told The Post.
A nearby resident, Marceline Mukamana, heard the lighting strike, followed by the sound of a woman crying for help, she told the New Times. She ran to the church and found everyone lying on the ground.
“It was very terrifying to see,” she told the New Times. “I started moving back with my legs shaking.” She sprinted home to call the authorities.
More than 140 congregants were rushed to a hospital to be treated for their injuries, provincial governor Rose Mureshyankwano told the Associated Press. One person died on the way to the hospital and three others died after arriving, Francois said.
“Fortunately, we saved a lot of them,” Francois told The Post. Most of the injured congregants have been discharged from the hospital, but 17 continue to receive treatment. Only one person remains in “serious but manageable” condition, Francois said.
Lightning strikes are common in this hilly part of Rwanda, particularly during the rainy season at this time of year, Benhirwe said. But these are usually isolated incidents, striking livestock or humans in different parts of the region.
“It is the first time that many people died all at once,” Benhirwe said.
Just two weeks ago, more than 700 Rwandan churches were forced to close for not complying with building regulations, according to local news outlet PanorActu. A number of these churches reportedly lacked the required rods designed to protect buildings from lightning strikes.
One other person — a 21-year-old woman — in another part of the Nyaruguru district was fatally struck by lightning during Saturday’s storm, Francois said. On Friday, lightning struck a group of 18 students, killing one, officials told the Associated Press. Across the country in 2016, lightning killed 30 people and injured 61, according to statistics from Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, cited by the AP.
Nearly 1,000 local residents and provincial officials gathered Sunday to bury the congregants killed in the church lightning strike. Abidan Ruhongeka, president of the South Rwandan Field of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, attended the ceremony and offered condolences to the families of the deceased.
“Let everybody remember that when Jesus comes again, those died in Him shall resurrect,” Ruhongeka said, according to the Adventist News Network.
Francois said that the Nyaruguru district will pay all of the medical bills of the injured congregants still receiving treatment.
Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, wrote in a Facebook post that members of the church worldwide offered their “deep sympathy” to those who have lost loved ones in this “traumatic event.”
“Our hearts go out to our dear church members in Rwanda who have suffered this very difficult loss,” Wilson wrote. “What a tragedy to have such a strange occurrence of lightning striking during a church service.”
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