National Guardsman Killed By Lightning at Fort Dix
By DAVID ROHDE
Published: May 4, 1998
A bolt of lightning that struck during a relatively mild storm killed a 22-year-old New Jersey National Guardsman and burned five other reservists, two of them critically, during a routine training exercise in the sprawling pinelands of the Fort Dix military base in Central New Jersey early yesterday morning, officials said.
The lightning struck a pine tree a few feet from three 10-foot-tall tents at 5:15 A.M. as more than two dozen soldiers from a National Guard artillery unit based in Lawrenceville, N.J., slept.
Lieut. Col. John Dwyer, a New Jersey National Guard spokesman, said investigators believe the lightning traveled down the tree, through the ground and into the nine-person tents.
”I’ve seen units that were struck by lightning before,” Colonel Dwyer said. ”But I’ve never seen a fatality.”
Specialist Kenyon Hodges, 22, of Trenton, was pronounced dead on arrival at Community Medical Center in Toms River early yesterday morning. Helicopters carried three badly burned members of his unit, Specialist Matthew Scheper, 23, Pfc. Jose Santiago, 34, and Pvt. Barry Johnson, 37, to Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J. Base officials said Private Johnson and Private Santiago, both of Trenton, were in critical but stable condition last night and Specialist Scheper, of Somerset, was in serious but stable condition.
Three other reservists, Pfc. Adolphus Hayes, 23, of Trenton, Sgt. Keith Goslin, 28, of Lawrenceville and Pfc. Eric Fekete — who cut himself while trying to aid those hurt — suffered minor injuries and were treated at Ocean County hospitals and released. Private Fekete’s age and hometown were not available.
National Weather Service meteorologists based in nearby Mount Holly said the bolt emerged from a small, unspectacular thunderstorm that formed over Burlington County and moved northeast over the Fort Dix area yesterday morning between 5 and 5:30 A.M.
Instruments recorded roughly one lightning strike per minute during the period, a relatively small number. ”It wasn’t an extraordinary amount of lightning,” a meteorologist, Al Cope, said. ”But it only takes one.”
Carolee Nisbet, a Fort Dix spokeswoman, said the unit, Bravo Battery of the Third Battalion, 112th Field Artillery, was camped near Route 70 in an area of scattered pines on the southern edge of the 50-square-mile base.
Colonel Dywer said the unit, which operates self-propelled 155-millimeter howitzers, followed proper procedure and did not camp in the open or near a single tall tree, which could attract lightning. If a thunderstorm approaches, soldiers are instructed not to set up radios or stand on armored vehicles.
”There was relatively nothing the unit should have done differently,” Colonel Dwyer said.
Roughly 7,400 reservists from 50 units from across the Northeast were on the base over the weekend for routine monthly training exercises, said David Moore, a spokesman for the base.
Ms. Nisbet said she believed the accident rate at Fort Dix is comparable to that of other military bases. Accidents are rare, she said, considering the amount of training carried out at the base. Reservists will log a record 1.3 million days of training at the base in the 1998 fiscal year, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
”I wouldn’t call this an accident,” she said. ”I’d call this an act of God.”
Roughly 100 people a year die from lightning strikes in the United States, meteorologists said. What was so freakish about yesterday’s accident was the unremarkable nature of the storm. While thunderstorms can stretch to 100 miles long, yesterday’s storm was only about 20 miles long.
The National Weather Service issues thunderstorm warnings when there is an expectation of winds over 58 miles per hour or hail over three-quarters of an inch in diameter, but neither of those conditions were present yesterday.
”It was a very small, little cluster of thundershowers that was moving across New Jersey; nothing spectacular about it at all,” said Sam Perugini, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. ”It’s basically luck in the end. Lightning tends to hit the tallest object in an area.”
Three other reservists have been killed at the base in the last two years. John R. Job, 21, of Jersey City, and Tanya D. Melvin, 23, of Hamden, Conn., died last April when the truck they were riding in drove off an embankment. The driver, Gerald J. Galarza Jr. of Union City, pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide in a court-martial in January and was sentenced to 28 months in prison.
Ronald Crima, 26, a reservist from Kings Park, N.Y., died in June 1996 when a tree he was trying to move after a storm fell on top of him.