LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Members of a Southland family who were struck by lightning are speaking out for the first time since the incident in hopes their story will provide valuable scientific help.
Michael McQuilken was 19 years old when he was on a trip to Sequoia National Park in 1975 with his 16-year-old brother, Sean, sister, Mary Sutton, brother, Jeff, and friend, Margie Warthen.
McQuilken, 56, who now lives in San Diego, says he will never forget that fateful day.
“All of sudden I’m slammed into the ground. It was a huge explosion. And Sean is doubled over and there is smoke coming out of his back,” he told CBS2’s Paul Magers.
Sutton and Warthen were also struck.
“We wanted to go up Moro Rock,” McQuilken said. “It didn’t appear to be as overcast; there were blue patches of sky, some sunny areas. There were some good views. There were a couple of people up there taking photographs. And all of a sudden, I noticed all of our hair started sticking up into the air,” he recalled.
“I had a camera with me and I took a photo of my sister. We were going to photograph Margie and Jeff, but the hail started falling down. We were like, ‘let’s just get down and off of this as quick as we can.’ I want to say we were 30 percent down. You knew right away because you’re like ‘bam’ — on the ground.
“I look back and the three of them are on the ground and kinda getting back up and Mary was green at the time,” he said.
Sutton recalled the physically debilitating pain she felt when she was struck.
“I was vomiting, too, the whole ride until the next morning,” she said.
Warthen, just 16 at the time, is now 54 and living in San Diego as well. She says lightning has left its mark.
“The lightening, I actually saw it, and it looked like an umbilical chord of energy,” she said. “The smell, the burning of the bodies were just awful.”
“I used to scream and cry and go sit in the closet,” she said.
Sutton, then 15, now lives in Huntington Beach. At 54, she recently had a brain tumor removed and wonders if the incident is connected to her health.
“They say it does central nervous system damage, and some people are affected after lightening strikes by depression,” she said.
McQuilken says he acquired a rare pulmonary disease in 2010 and wonders if lightning is to blame for all of these ailments — and for depression that runs in the family.
“Both our brothers — they succumbed to neurological illnesses that eventually led to their suicide,” he said.
The family hopes scientists can learn from their experience and that they can help to bring awareness to the dangers and warning signs of lightning.
“Back in 1975, they really didn’t understand this. And now organizations like NOAA and the Red Cross, they have information they disburse,” he said.
“I’m actually a first grade teacher,” Sutton added. “Back when that was new and fresh and we had pictures, I would actually talk to them about lightning awareness.”
The picture McQuilken took on that fateful day appears to be the only photograph of this phenomenon that has ever been captured, and it’s used to warn people who may see their hair suddenly stand on end that they could be in imminent danger of a lightning strike.
While the memories of Moro Rock remain an enigma, they family does know they were lucky to survive.
“It’s incredible. It’s unique. It’s not like I’m a movie star or anything. It’s something… you can’t put it on your bucket list but it happened and very people can say it,” Warthen explained.
Lightning is the leading weather-related cause of death in the country.
About 400 people survive lightning strikes in the U.S. each year.