He was very, very lucky. Twelve people have been killed by lightning in the United States this year, including two in Pennsylvania and three in Florida. Averaged over the past three decades, more than four-dozen people are killed by lightning in the United States every year. Men are four times as likely to be struck.
Hundreds of others suffer injuries annually that can often be permanent and life-altering. Long-term effects can include problems with coordination and balance, concentration issues and chronic pain.
It appears that McNeill did not suffer a direct lightning strike, but there’s evidence to suggest he narrowly averted disaster.
In a slowed-down version of the clip, the skies first appear to light up in the background of the image. That would be to the east-northeast. That illumination indicates the beginning of the sequence of events that we’re focusing on. It’s possible that was either a distant flash that enhanced the electric field nearby or, more likely, the beginning of the central flash. The charge then probably crawled southwestward along the base of the clouds, ultimately setting the stage for the lightning strike overhead.
In the next frame, an arc of electricity can be seen in the foreground. It is not striking McNeill. Instead, this arc is very likely an upward leader.
Upward leaders form when the downward-moving bolt of electricity from the clouds approaches the ground. Before it gets there, a bunch of tiny channels of electricity move upward from the ground, each as if raising its hand to say: “Pick me! Pick me!”
Eventually, the downward streamer from the clouds attaches to one of the upward streamers. When they connect, the lightning strike has completed a channel between the cloud and the ground, and copious amounts of potentially deadly charge can pour through the channel. After a flood of charge moves through, the channel cools off and the flow stops — like pinching off a garden hose. Suddenly, another pulse of electricity can shoot through the channel. This can happen a dozen or more times in the span of just a second or less, responsible for lightning’s tendency to flicker.
The upward-leader hypothesis in this case is supported by additional evidence, as well.
Others have suggested this may be a reflection from the actual lightning strike. While this could be possible, it’s highly unlikely. The small electrical channel that appears in the video occurs one frame before the main lightning strike, so the timing would be off.
Additionally, there’s evidence to suggest the main lightning strike hit the flagpole, so any potential reflections would be visible more toward the periphery of the screen. Moreover, if this was a reflection of the main strike, it would show the entire channel, not just a piece of it. Lightning can sometimes appear in chunks on cameras because of an effect known as “rolling shutter,” but that does not appear to be the case here. All signs point to an upward leader — a remarkable and rare event to capture on camera, especially in such detail.
Then comes the flash — the main bolt of electricity. It’s accompanied by a blinding shadow. It appears the main channel did not connect to the upward leader adjacent to McNeill. If it did, he probably would have been injured. Instead, it appears to have hit the flagpole out front in the center of the circular driveway. You’ll notice the shadow from the tree on the left points to that being the target — not McNeill’s upward leader.
But then McNeill drops his umbrella and doubles over, all the while stepping in a puddle. (That’s not electricity you see near his legs but rather splashed water.)
In most episodes of fear, as might occur from a loud noise such as a crack of thunder, people clutch onto whatever they’re holding. Likewise, if he had been severely electrocuted, his muscles would have tensed up.
Instead, he probably tossed the umbrella because he may have gotten a brief shock from it — due to an induced current spurred by proximity to multiple electrical channels (first near us and then away). That rapidly changing electrical field can send a brief current through charged objects.
This underscores the importance of always being indoors during a thunderstorm. McNeill came incredibly close to disaster. You don’t have to be the source of the main strike to be injured or even killed.
Any time lightning threatens, it is best to be inside a building and away from anything that could potentially carry an electrical charge to you. That includes contact with plumbing or wired appliances. A good rule of thumb, referred to by the National Weather Service’s “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!” campaign, is that if you can hear thunder, you’re fair game for a lightning strike.