LOS ANGELES – Angelica Roquemore made the long drive from Bakersfield to Venice Beach on Sunday, planning to frolic in the waves with relatives during her first visit to the famed beach town’s white sand and eclectic shops.
But in an instant, the day at the beach turned into a scene of panic when a perfect storm of rare weather sent lightning bolts and booming thunder from a darkened sky.
The midafternoon lightning strikes killed a 20-year-old man who was pulled from the water and injured at least seven others – one of them critically. The 15-minute thunderstorm struck while more than 20,000 people were visiting the southern portion of Venice Beach, where the lightning hit, sending beachgoers scrambling for cover and nearly six dozen rescue workers into action.
“My hair was standing up,” Roquemore said. “You could hear everybody screaming.”
Lightning from the same storm hit Catalina Island about 90 minutes earlier, injuring a 57-year-old man on a golf course in Avalon and igniting two brush fires, officials said.
Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the lightning strikes that hit the Southern California coast Sunday from San Diego to Venice are extremely rare. The West Coast has the lowest incidence of lightning strikes in the nation; the odds of being hit are 1 in 7.5 million in California compared to 1 in 600,000 in Florida, the nation’s “lightning champion,” he said.
He said an intense high-pressure system pulled an unusual mass of hot and moist air from Mexico and the Gulf of California to the coastal areas, creating the unstable atmospheric conditions that produced the lightning. Normally, he said, those air masses travel no farther west than the high desert area and mountains.
“This was a sneak attack that took everybody by surprise,” he said.
The Los Angeles City Fire Department deployed 47 firefighters, eight ambulances and five fire engines to the 3800 block of Ocean Front Walk in Venice after receiving the first call for aid at 2:21 p.m., said fire spokeswoman Katherine Main.
All told, Main said, firefighters responded to medical complaints by 13 beachgoers, eight of whom were transported to area hospitals.
The beach front in Venice was hit by at least four direct lightning strikes around 2:20 p.m., said Stuart Seto of the National Weather Service.
The name of the 20-year-old victim killed Sunday was not released pending notification to relatives. Authorities said the man was reported to be floating in the water by a witness, and was not breathing when retrieved.
A second victim in critical condition was a 55-year-old male who had been surfing, said Capt. Danny Douglas, of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division.
Witnesses said the thunder and lightning were so explosive that it shook homes, triggered car alarms and set dogs barking.