Lifeguards prepare to move another victim. (REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn)
Kelsey Hess is a sophomore at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a sustainability journalism fellow at Zocalo Public Square.

On Sunday afternoon, I was knee-deep in the ocean, right next to the Venice Fishing Pier, when the deadly lightning bolt hit the water. This rare event killed one person and injured 13 others, making national news. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I had gone to the beach with my college roommate Amanda, who was visiting from Arizona, and our friend Sam, who lives on a houseboat in the Marina. We slipped off our shoes so we could dip our toes in the chilly water for 45 minutes before bringing Amanda back to the airport. The sky was overcast. We walked for 30 minutes with the surf up to our calves, chatting about ex-boyfriends, college classes, and how hard it is to be vegetarian. We were standing in a triangular formation; I was up to my knees in water facing Sam and Amanda. I had been digging a hole in the sand with my feet, burying my ankles in it as water rhythmically filled and emptied it.

Without warning, an explosion erupted above my head. My heart leaped. An enormous, white light broke the sky above me. A huge roar echoed across the beach, and my body refused to turn around, for fear of seeing that a bomb had gone off around me. I was holding a Starbucks coffee cup and my flip flops, but my hands had gone numb.

Seconds later, the bright light disappeared and the thunder was replaced with sounds of chaos on the beach. We ran, out of instinct, to shelter, which was out of the water and under the pier. As Sam and Amanda caught their breath, my attention turned to my left kneecap, which was tingling. As I reached down to touch it, I became very aware of my hands. The joints in my fingers felt tender and my hands were suddenly tingling, as well.

As I glanced around the beach, trying to make sense of the last 10 seconds, I heard Amanda telling Sam that it was lightning. Amanda told me that the bolt had hit the water directly behind me, some 30 feet away. I would later learn, via the Weather Channel, that the lightning strike electrified the water for about 50 yards around it. I had been standing knee-deep in what they called the “hot zone.” My left leg was closest to the deep water, so the shock may have entered through that extremity and exited through my hands.

From under the pier, I watched as dozens of people sprinted out of the ocean, while others ran into the water to help surfers and swimmers who had been struck. The line separating the water from the dry sand was swarming with frazzled men and women. Sunbathers sat up straight. Families with picnics and umbrellas further up the beach were quickly packing up to head home.

I began to regain sensation in my hands, and ignored my tingling knee, as we joined the mass exodus from the beach. We walked past the surf shops and restaurants again, this time overhearing conversations between strangers about the lightning. As we climbed into my car, I brushed the sand from my feet, which sent a small but sharp sensation through my ankle. I started the car.

I felt more scattered and anxious than usual, but I drove Sam to her boat and took Amanda to LAX. Then, leaving the airport, I made an uncharacteristic decision to navigate without using any GPS apps. I could hardly focus on where I was going and desperately didn’t want a voice heckling me, so I got on the freeway and drove straight until I felt like changing lanes. I replayed the beach scenes in my mind and, on impulse, headed to the Fresco Community Market, my favorite grocery store.

I spent about 45 minutes walking around, forgetting why I was in that aisle, staring at the Greek yogurt, walking away and then coming back. I was dazed, but I didn’t recognize it. My arms were sore. Finally, I bought lunch supplies, drove home, and made myself a grilled sandwich with orange juice. Soon my parents walked in and I told them about my wild afternoon. I insisted I was fine, and I really thought I was.

Then I stood up.

My mother says she watched me as my legs grew weak and my fingers began to tingle again. Suddenly I had hardly enough energy to bring my plate into the kitchen. I left to lie down in my bedroom and stare at the ceiling. My eyes wanted to close, and suddenly my body felt cold. I reached up to scratch my neck and froze. I looked down as I ran my finger across my neck. The tingly feeling I had felt in my knee and my fingers earlier that day was spreading. It felt as though there were eight layers of skin between my fingertips and the rest of my body.

The inside of my elbow became achy and my muscles became sore with every second that my arm was elevated. The nerves throughout my body felt both electrified and numb. I lay very still as I called for my parents to come upstairs. When they arrived, my eyes were glassy and my breath was shallow. It felt like an electric wave was moving up and down my left leg, across my torso. I squirmed on my bed to try and shift the sensation, but it had no effect.

My parents started asking me specific questions, such as where my shoes are, if I remember the names of my medication, and what I ate today. I stared blankly at them and didn’t speak. Soon I saw six or seven paramedics walking through my bedroom. One asked for my name and age; I answered quickly to focus on following the electric current through my body. They took my blood pressure and asked me other questions, to which I murmured answers.

The paramedics said that I seemed fine, medically speaking. But the fatigue was overwhelming, and a loud beep from a paramedic’s walkie-talkie gave me a sudden and raging headache. I tried to explain how I was feeling but the paramedic interrupted to say that they couldn’t answer specific questions because of liability concerns. The paramedic offered me a ride to a hospital, but I shook my head quickly. If I was in any real danger, I figured I wouldn’t have been able to operate the car when I left the beach. Within minutes, the paramedics were gone.

The electric wave moving across my body had slowed down, and I fell asleep. When I awoke and joined my family later that evening, I felt tired, but the tingly sensation had stopped. I contacted Sam and Amanda, who reported no ill effects.

I feel fine writing this. The rare lightning bolt was a surprise to Angelenos, as were the heavy rainstorms earlier in the day. We’re not used to such things. I hadn’t known, on Sunday morning before my trip to the beach, that thunder follows lightning, or that untimely rainstorms are something to worry about. I know now.

This essay is published in conjunction with Zocalo Public Square.