CASPER — Jack Corson was moving heifers when the lightning struck.
As dark clouds descended early in the afternoon of Aug. 3 upon the BellOtte Ranch, 50 miles north of Rock River, Jack, his daughter Addie and ranchhand Connor Worthen hurried to finish moving the cattle from one pasture to another.
The trio thought they were racing against a rainstorm. They were up on a mountain and had kept an eye out for lightning, but hadn’t seen any.
Addie, 21, and Connor, 19, rode to the far side of the pasture to shepherd the heifers toward a gate separating the mountain from the valley. Jack, 65, stayed near the gate, counting the animals as they passed through. Then the storm hit.
“One second Jack was on top of his horse, and then it got really bright, and then he wasn’t there anymore,” Connor said. “That horse collapsed immediately.”
Connor and Addie raced over to where the rancher and his horse lay. Jack had fallen backward, his feet still in the stirrups. The smell of ozone hung in the air.
Doctors would later conclude that the lightning struck the metal rivet in Jack’s baseball cap and passed through his body, into the horse, which suffered the brunt of the shock. His family believes that the horse still having all four metal shoes — which can easily be lost to Wyoming’s uneven terrain — grounded Jack and saved his life.
“We got him out of the stirrups, pulled him off the horse, laid him on the ground,” Connor said. Jack was choking and coughing up blood. They rolled him onto his side to help him breathe.
The horse, Mac, was dead.
Seven miles away from the ranch house, afraid Jack would also die in front of them, Connor directed Addie to go get her brothers, twin JD and 37-yearold Shell Roberson, who had come with them to the mountain. Connor stayed with Jack.
Slowly, Jack’s breathing eased, and he regained consciousness. At first, he was disoriented. His muscles were contracted. He could barely move and was in immense pain.
In the meantime, Addie found her brothers. Shell drove to the house to call 911, then returned, this time accompanied by his mother, Celia — Jack’s wife.
Celia had given the 911 operator her home address, so they helped Jack into the car and headed toward the house, where they expected to meet the ambulance. As they were leaving, Shell found the shredded remnants of Jack’s baseball cap, some distance away from where he’d fallen.
They had to leave Mac behind.
The horse was in his twenties, and the family had owned him for more than a decade. Addie and JD learned to ride on his back. He was old and stubborn and well-loved.
“We’re really sad to lose him,” Celia said. “It was really hard to go off and leave him laying in the field all by himself. I mean, you had to. I don’t have any regrets. But it was hard to just leave him laying there in the open spot where he fell down.”
It was a slow ride back to the house. The SUV’s four-wheel drive stopped working and they got stuck crossing a creek, then had to free the vehicle, all in the pouring rain. But the dispatcher had sent a helicopter, which met them on the way.
“We looked up and we saw the helicopter and that in itself was a miracle,” Celia said. “They had no idea that they needed to come seven more miles to the north to find him. But there was a grassy area kind of where we were, so we just stopped, and the helicopter landed.”
The odds of being struck by lightning in the U.S. in a given year are less than one in a million.
Between 2009 and 2018, an average of 27 Americans were killed and several hundred more were injured by lightning strikes each year, according to the National Weather Service.
The CDC urges people to seek shelter whenever thunder can be heard and avoid any contact with water, metal, exposed concrete and corded electronics during storms, even indoors.
Direct strikes are the deadliest. But lightning can also jump down from trees and overhead structures, travel short distances through the ground and send currents much farther through metal objects and other conductors.
“We can see a broad range of injuries from lightning, all the way from a little common — kind of zzt — static electrical charge, all the way up to cardiac arrest,” said Mary Ann Cooper, a retired professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, who directed the university’s Lightning Injury Research Program.
Lightning hits its target with the force of a five kilogram TNT bomb, Cooper said. A blast that powerful can cause concussions and other indirect harm to people nearby.
Directly, “the only thing that kills people from lightning is a cardiac arrest at the time of the injury,” she said.
Ground currents are the most common cause of lightning injury. When the electrical charge enters a human from the ground, it usually travels up one leg and down the other — missing the heart. Horses aren’t so lucky.
“Four-footed animals not only have more distance between their back legs and their front legs, so they’ve got more potential difference, but they also have their heart more or less in the direct transmission line with energy,” Cooper said.
In humans, a side effect from that current — temporary paralysis — can also be deadly. According to Cooper, who now directs the nonprofit African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics Network, the immobilization caused by lightning strikes is especially dangerous in developing countries, where people can become trapped in housing built with flammable materials like mud and thatch.
Other lightning burns, though painful, tend to be superficial, especially in developed countries. The strike can turn sweat and rainwater on a person’s body into steam. Any metal they’re wearing, like necklaces or belt buckles or the grommets in their shoes, can become hot enough to melt, scalding their skin in the process.
Lightning can also cause a form of scarring called Lichtenberg figures — jagged, branching patterns reminiscent of the lightning itself.
Jack was flown to the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper. Family friend Beth Worthen, Connor’s mother, met him there. The family, meanwhile, drove up from the ranch.
“I kind of expected Jack to be in rough shape,” she said. “And what I got was something very different. He saw that I came into the room, he had all kinds of instructions that he would like me to relay to Connor — that there were, you know, heifers down at the reservoir.”
Members of Jack’s medical team told the family his condition was a miracle. But the family, devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believe it was no accident.
“Jack’s life was preserved because obviously the Lord has a plan for him and he’s not done on this Earth yet,” Celia said.
His son JD performed two blessings, one on the mountain and another at the hospital, invoking the authority of the priesthood as he prayed for Jack to heal quickly.
Jack’s heart stopped for 30 seconds during the first night. Doctors put in a temporary pacemaker, but he hasn’t seemed to need it.
On Aug. 5, after he passed a chemical stress test, he was moved out of the ICU and into a regular hospital room. His family hopes he’ll soon be well enough to go home.
Several days after the strike, Jack is still in pain. One of his nurses compared the strain on his muscles to running several back-to-back marathons. And second-degree burns extend all over his body. Though he will require wound care as he recovers, the doctors found no internal damage.
“I have a very strong belief that if this would have gone the other way, and if Jack would have died, that doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t care,” Celia said. “It doesn’t mean that he’s not mindful of us, that it’s just he had a different plan in mind. And that he never forsakes us, he does not abandon us, and we are blessed. There are miracles and blessings, even when things turn out, as we don’t want them to.”