Kansas City man recalls lightning strike that could have killed him

KMBZ Cover Story: Severe Weather - When Seconds Count

Marc LaVoie
March 09, 2018 - 6:11 am

Sabin Fuentes and his wife, Myonghee, circa 1990

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A letter carrier in Kansas City knows what he's talking about when it comes to lightning safety -- he was injured in a strike several years ago.

Sabin Fuentes was listening the KMBZ Cover Story for Severe Weather Awareness Week. He took special interest in the chapter about lightning.

Fuentes was stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama with the Army on May 14,1990. He was on an outdoor mission where his job was to train air traffic controlling skills to 60 recent graduates of basic training. 

They heard rumbling in the distance as they set up their gear, but it sounded like artillery in the distance. They were not in a safe place when the storm arrived.

"I was in the command tent, which was a hex-tent, with one single, metal pole, holding it up in the center, three of us, sitting on metal chairs," Fuentes said.

The lightning strike struck the pole and the electrical charge spread to the people in the tent. Sabin was knocked backwards. Another soldier's muscles contracted so violently, he jumped up through the top of the tent, tearing a hole though the material.

"(A female soldier) was sitting what they call a PA-312 telephone, and it blew up while she was sitting on it," Fuentes said. "It gave her third-degree burns on her rear end."

Fuentes, disoriented, called for a helicopter to come and evacuate the injured soldiers, of which he was one. He considered the safety of the 60 people in his charge, ordering them to drop their M-16 rifles in a pile and stay low.

Fuentes's heart stopped for a few seconds on the medivac flight to the hospital, which he doesn't remember. He was released the following day.

A few months later, Fuentes got another reminder of the dangers of staying outdoors when thunder can be heard. He was playing golf with some friends on base, about to tee off on the 18th hole.

"Lightning struck a tree 30 feet from the tee box," Fuentes said. 

He dropped his clubs and went in the clubhouse.

The lightning strike during the training exercise left Fuentes with permanent nerve damage in his elbow and knee. Thunderstorms started to make him nervous, which he told his supervisors. He lost his flight status for a while, which meant he was not allowed to serve as an air traffic controller. 

A psychiatrist told Fuentes he was suffering from a simple phobia, which he said was a fear that is unsubstantiated, irrational or unreasonable.

"I asked him if he had ever been struck by lightning and he said, no," Fuentes remembers. "I said please don't tell me it's unreasonable."

At his current job as a letter carrier Fuentes is careful to watch the weather forecasts so he can plan ahead. He walks almost all of his route in all kinds of conditions.

"I look for a residence that has a cover over it, or a building that has a building that has a basement that I can run to," Fuentes said. He also knows his mail truck is a relatively safe place in an electrical storm. 

Fuentes chooses not to allow his near-death experience hinder him, but he said he learned a lesson nearly 28 years ago to take lightning very seriously. 

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