There’s having bad luck and then there’s “hit by lightning seven times in one lifetime” bad luck, and United States park ranger Roy Sullivan fits into this latter category.
In his 71 years on Earth, from 1912 to 1983, Sullivan managed to survive seven bolts of lightning, and potentially an eighth that he was unable to verify during his childhood. It’s a testiment to how bizarre his life was that the fact he also fought 22 bears is an afterthought.
1942: The tower
The first time Sullivan was struck by lightning was at a fire lookout tower, which hadn’t yet had lightning rods installed. The tower had been struck about seven times, and as a result “fire was jumping all over the place”. He ran outside in what would normally be a good move (fire hot!) but was promptly hit by what he would later call the most painful lightning strike he experienced, which burned a strip down his leg and blew a hole in his shoe, from which blood poured out.
“I got just a few feet away from the tower, and then, blam,” he told reporters some 30 years later.
1969: The truck
While driving down a mountain road, probably muttering something along the lines of “27 years since that one and probably only time I’ll ever be struck by lightning,” Sullivan saw lightning hit two trees on the side of the road. Normally, a car will act as a faraday cage, with the metal – a better conductor than you, even if you happen to be Roy Sullivan – directing the current around the inside of the car and discharging it into the ground.
However, Sullivan had his windows down at the time and the charge passed through one window and out the other, making just a brief detour through Sullivan’s various body parts and possessions. In this strike, his eyebrows and hair were fried off and his wristwatch destroyed, as the lightning rendered him unconscious, sending him off the road into a ditch.
1970: The yard
In an event that seems suspiciously like the lightning knew where Roy lived and wanted to let him know he wasn’t safe there either, Sullivan was hit while doing some gardening, on a relatively clear day. He was hit in the shoulder and reportedly made airborne.
1972: Is God mad at me?
Getting hit by lightning was starting to become routine. This time on Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park where he was a ranger, in a guardhouse, when lightning struck the building. He reportedly heard sizzling, which by this point he should have immediately assumed was part of his body. Fortunately, it was just his hair.
He put himself out with wet paper towels and went to hospital. He told the press that God seemed determined to toast him.
Most lightning strikes survived#OnThisDay in 1972 Roy Sullivan’s hair was set on fire by a lightning strike – the third occasion that Roy had been struck. The unfortunate park ranger from Virginia, USA survived a total of seven lighting strikes during his lifetime 🌩️ pic.twitter.com/jIcrIPzJP1
— Guinness World Records (@GWR) April 16, 2018
1973: The last one
Sullivan had begun to have dreams of being hit by lightning, which he took to be an omen, but talking logically is probably because he had been struck by lightning four freaking times already.
While trying to outrun a storm, Sullivan claimed that the cloud appeared to be pursuing him. Finally escaping it in his car, he got out and was hit yet again, with the lightning moving down the left hand side of his body and firing off his shoe. With this strike, the dreams stopped, and he reportedly believed God had spared him for some purpose.
1976: OK one more
That pact with God lasted three years, whereupon he was struck again and injured his ankle trying to run away. His hair also caught on fire, but by this point Sullivan probably used it instead of haircuts.
1977: Gone fishing
The final strike took place near a large body of water, a freshwater pool where he was fishing. The lightning set his hair on fire (of course) before heading down his body and burning his chest and stomach.
On the way back to his car, he encountered a bear and was forced to shoo it away by hitting it with a stick, which he claimed was the 22nd time he had had to fend off bears in this manner.
So, what are the odds?
The odds of getting hit by lightning in the US in any given year are around 1/1.2 million. That goes down to 1/15,300 over your lifetime, assuming you live to 80, according to the US National Weather Service. But it’s not simply a matter of multiplying the odds, given that Sullivan worked outside in a national park, in a state that has a relatively high number of thunderstorms.
For instance, you wouldn’t say that somebody who only swims indoors has the same odds of being attacked by a shark as someone who likes to smear themself up in fish blood then thrash around doing butterfly stroke in shark-infested waters. The same can be applied to Sullivan, who on the seventh strike was struck while waving around a fishing rod during a thunderstorm. Though the odds are still against it happening, they’re significantly reduced by him spending a lot of time outdoors.
Though Sullivan died nearly 40 years ago, he remains the record holder for the person who has been struck by lightning the most times and lived.