WHITBY, Ont. - Hundreds of people at an Ontario food festival were crammed into a dining tent waiting out a sudden rainshower Sunday when a lightning bolt struck one of the structure's steel poles, triggering an electrical discharge that sent 17 people to hospital amid a buzz of concern.
"You see the flash and it sounded like a bomb (went off) exactly at the same time. It was so loud," said Steve Peddle, who was with his wife inside the main tent of the inaugural Whitby Ribfest when the lightning hit around 2 p.m.
"All of a sudden, like not even three seconds after that, you started hearing people screaming."
Officials said none of the 17 taken to hospital suffered life-threatening injuries, but many at the event were shaken by the incident.
"It wasn't just one person — there was a lot of people screaming. And so you knew somebody must have got hit," said Peddle, who travelled from nearby Pickering with his wife Rose.
"I looked over and where my wife had been sitting before we got our ribs... there was three people lying on the ground there."
Another festival-goer, Michael Thompson, said a huge crowd of people had flooded into the large white tent moments before the strike as rain pounded the festival grounds at Iroquois Park in Whitby, which sits some 55 kilometres east of Toronto.
"It was pretty chaotic. We didn't really know what was going on," the 45-year-old said of the immediate aftermath of the strike.
"Some first aid people were in there and they (were) pretty quick when they rushed in. They were throwing tables out of the way so they could reach the injured."
Durham police said those who were injured were quickly taken to local hospitals.
Nine people were rushed via ambulance to Lakeridge Health in Durham, some suffering from minor burns, while others were uninjured but want to be checked up on, said a spokesman with the hospital.
"Everyone who came, nobody had anything serious. Everybody has been discharged," said Aaron Lazarus.
Whitby Ribfest chairman Colin O'Regan said the festival didn't see the lightning storm coming before the bolt hit the tent.
"Basically a sudden storm came out of nowhere," he said.
The festival's emergency plan — drawing on lessons learned from other rib festivals — ensured first aid workers were able to race inside the tent "within seconds," while other staff and police already at the event kept the crowd orderly, O'Regan added.
Additional police, fire and emergency officials arrived minutes later, he said.
The Durham Region, which includes Whitby, was put under a severe thunderstorm watch hours before the strike.
O'Regan said emergency officials who were already at the festival had been monitoring the thunderstorm watch.
"We were aware but felt that there was no risk to the patrons attending," he said.
No heavy rain or any other indication the storm was coming was noticed until minutes before thunderclouds rolled in and lightning struck the tent, he said.
There were several thousand people attending the festival when the strike took place and many more were expected to show up later in the afternoon, O'Regan said.
"It occurred earlier in the day when we were not as populated as we would have been," he said, noting that thousands had attended on each of the two previous festival days.
— By Will Campbell in Toronto
Be On The Lookout.
The simplest step in lightning safety is to avoid thunderstorms in the first place. Storms can pop up suddenly during summer, so it's a good idea to check <a href="http://www.mnn.com/weather" target="_hplink">weather forecasts</a> often before going out (as well as while you're out, via a smartphone, radio or other portable device). Be especially wary of hitting the water in boats or jet skis when bad weather is brewing, since a storm might explode before you can get back to land. If you don't have access to weather reports, keep an eye on the horizon for any tall, dark storm clouds with an anvil or cauliflower shape.
Take Charge Of The Situation.
Lightning is just a <a href="http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-causes-lightning" target="_hplink">huge spark of electricity</a>, caused by opposite electrical charges within a storm or between clouds and the ground. There are two types of cloud-to-ground lightning: negative flashes that link a storm's negatively charged interior to positively charged ground below, and positive flashes that connect a storm's positive top to negative ground farther away. The latter type can strike about 10 miles outward from a storm, which is why it's unwise to delay your retreat until you actually see clouds or feel rain -- by then, it could already be too late.
Don't Ignore A Fair Warning.
Thunder is the noise lightning makes as it rips through air, causing it to rapidly heat up and expand. Human ears can typically hear thunder up to <a href="http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/overview.htm" target="_hplink">10 miles away</a> from a lightning bolt, and since that's also how far lightning can reach from its parent storm, this familiar sound really is as scary as your dog thinks it is. If you hear thunder while you're outdoors, you're already in danger. You should quickly head for a safe shelter, ideally without any metal objects like umbrellas or golf clubs that could make you an enticing target.
Seek shelter ASAP when caught in a thunderstorm, but also keep in mind that not all shelter is the same. Trees are a terrible option, for example, since their height attracts lightning. The NWS suggests either a "<a href="http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/overview.htm" target="_hplink">substantial building</a>" -- i.e., one that's fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, and has plumbing or wiring -- or an enclosed metal vehicle. Avoid unsafe buildings such as carports, open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents, baseball dugouts, sheds and greenhouses. Unsafe vehicles include golf carts, convertibles, motorcycles and any others with open cabs.
Keep A Low Profile.
Finding an enclosed shelter is the best way to escape lightning, but there are also ways to reduce the risks if you can't reach a building or a car. The first is to get away from tall trees, flagpoles, power lines or other vertical structures that might attract lightning, especially if they contain metal. The second is to avoid becoming a lightning rod yourself: Crouch low to the ground, but don't kneel, sit or lie down. The idea is to touch the ground as little as possible, so try not to even put your hands on it. And, if possible, keep looking for a suitable shelter.
Don't Forget The Pets.
Your dog may already have a healthy fear of thunder, but since he probably doesn't quite understand why, he still needs your help to stay safe. Don't leave dogs or other pets outside if a thunderstorm is expected, and don't let them seek refuge in a doghouse, open barn or other vulnerable structure.
Think Outside The Box.
You're much safer from lightning in an enclosed building, but you're not totally safe. There are several ways lightning can sneak inside, such as phone lines, electrical wires, water pipes, doors and windows. Use cordless phones or cellphones if you must talk midstorm, and wait until after the storm passes to take a shower or bath. You can protect TVs, computers and other electronics by unplugging them in advance, but it's risky to do so during a storm since you could be shocked in the process. And while it may be tempting to watch a storm from your porch or balcony, that would mean you're back outside -- and back in danger.
For more information about lightning safety, check out this video from the NWS:
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Learn how to survive a lightning storm with these safety tips.