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World: Highest Mortality, Single Lightning Flash

World: Highest Mortality Due to Single Direct Lightning

Record Value 21 individuals
Date of Record 23 / 12 (Dec) 1975
Formal WMO Review Yes
Length of Record 1873 to present
Instrumentation Documented reports;
Geospatial Location Manica Tribal Trust Lands, Zimbabwe [-18.5°S; 32.58°E; elevation: 842.5m (2764ft)]

References

Cerveny et al. 2017: WMO Assessment of Weather and Climate Mortality Extremes: Lightning, Tropical Cyclones, Tornadoes, and Hail, Climate Weather and Society,

Discussion

The lightning flash that killed 21 people in a hut in Manica Tribal Trust Lands in eastern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] on 23 December 1975: With regard to this event, the primary sources of information consisted of (a) a news release from the Reuters News Service for 24 December 1975 and (b) a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for 1977. With regard to the first source, the Salt Lake City Tribune Newspaper for 25 December, 1975 (p. 12A) states “Bolt of Lightning Kills 21. Reuters New Agency. Salisbury, Rhodesia — Lightning killed 21 people when it struck a hut in which they were seeking shelter from rain, Rhodesian police said here Wednesday. The dead included 14 children. Three people survived the incident, which occurred Tuesday in the Manica Tribal Trust Lands in eastern Rhodesia. The total number of people killed by lightning in Rhodesia since Oct. 1 is now 53 — one of the worst periods on record.” Contact with the Thomson Reuters News Service yielded the following response from David Cutler (Assistant Archivist, Thomson Reuters): “… I am sorry to say that we do not have that story any more. We have political stories from Zimbabwe from before then but unfortunately not that story. However I have found some later non-Reuters stories which confirm the event but give a different date. In fact most mentions do give December 23.” (Cutler, 2016). Our contact at the Guinness Book of World Records responded to our inquiry with the following information, “… the earliest reference I could find of the death of 21 people by a single bolt on 23 Dec 1975 – that’s the 24th / 1978 edition, printed and distributed in 1977 edition – therefore, although my book archive search is very manual, this was very likely the first time this record was printed.” (Valerio, 2016) The record was reprinted in the 1978 edition with the event being reported as having occurred in “Hut in Chinamasa Kraal nr. Umtali, Rhodesia”. Subsequent editions replaced Rhodesia with Zimbabwe, while the 1986 edition replaced “Kraal” with “Krael” ‘and the 1988 edition saw “Umtali” replaced with “Matari.” He noted that “As regards the original sources of the record: unfortunately we do not keep a paper archive of evidence from so far back, and not all evidence has been scanned.” Although this evidence is far from ideal, the consensus of the committee was that this record would be accepted until and if more information is obtained (e.g., one of the committee members believes that he saw an African newspaper report indicating 25 people died from the event but at this time cannot locate the specific newspaper) or another event with a greater death toll is uncovered. The question can be raised as to whether all of the deaths can directly be linked to the lightning strike or died from secondary causes. In developing countries, there are many reports of ten or more deaths per incident, sometimes with reporter statements of ‘charred bodies’ or ‘burned beyond recognition’. Reporters in developing countries seldom have firsthand information nor the opportunity to interview witnesses in many cases, so that it has previously been unclear whether these phrases reflect fact or only what the reporter expected to be the outcome of lightning strike. While ground current, side-flash or other combinations of mechanisms could cause multiple victims among larger groups of people, the prominent mention of ‘hut’ in the Zimbabwe report provided the committee with a vital clue. Nearly 90% of sub-Saharan buildings, especially homes, are not lightning safe, leaving entire families, classrooms, and workers constantly vulnerable. In particular, schools and homes tend to be mud-brick with thatch or sheet metal roofs held down by rocks. Lightning often causes keraunoparalysis, paralysis which may take minutes to hours to resolve, sometimes with permanent pain or weakness in the areas affected (Cooper, 1980). The mention of ‘hut’ opens the possibility that the victims were inside the hut at the time of their injury. Keraunoparalysis can result in otherwise healthy people being unable to evacuate or escape while the thatch, often generations old and tinder dry, burns and falls on them, causing ‘charred bodies’. There are several newspaper reports, including in Africa and the Caribbean, of pictures of fire-destroyed buildings that support this as a cause of multiple deaths in developing countries.