Mother struggles to understand son's death by lightning

Saturday, March 31, 2007
This undated photo provided by Carbondale Community High School shows 18-year-old high school runner Corey Williams. Williams died after being struck by lightning Thursday, March 29, 2007, during a track meet in Carbondale, Ill. (AP Photo/Carbondale Community High School) **NO SALES**

Vanessa Webb had heard the statistics about how rarely lightning strikes -- she never imagined such a force of nature would snatch her son.

On Friday, Webb struggled to understand why 18-year-old Corey Williams was killed the night before, after being leveled by a lightning bolt during Carbondale Community High School's first home track meet of the season.

In terms of the odds of death by lightning, "you equate it with winning the lottery. But why did I have to get that end of it?" Webb asked Friday, sobbing over losing a boy who left a legacy of medals, ribbons and trophies.

But Webb said she found comfort in the fact that Corey was wearing his high school track uniform and doing what he adored.

Williams, a junior who last year was among the area's top 110-meter hurdlers for his southern Illinois school, was returning to the main track area from the pole vault pit when lightning struck at about 4 p.m. Thursday.

Frantic efforts by the opposing coach and others to revive him failed, and Williams was dead by the time he got to a hospital. Jackson County's coroner confirmed that lightning killed the teenager.

Witnesses said the bolt appeared to come from nowhere at a time when only a light rain was falling, with no dark clouds.

"It didn't look anything like a thunderstorm," Scott Hankey, coach of the high school's baseball team that was preparing for a game nearby, told the (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan.

When Williams was struck, National Weather Service radar in Paducah, Ky., showed some lightning in the area as part of "just a regular thunderstorm" not considered significant enough to issue an advisory or warning, meteorologist Mike Nadolski said Friday.

Dan McCarthy, a severe-weather expert, said the relatively mild conditions at the time were "somewhat inconsequential" in explaining why witnesses said the lightning appeared to strike without warning.

"Unfortunately, these things do happen," said McCarthy, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. "As long as there's a possibility of a thunderstorm, there's a likelihood of lightning."

Over the past three decades, the United States has averaged 66 reported lightning fatalities per year, and just one of every 10 people struck by lightning dies, according to the weather service.

By all accounts, Williams was popular at his 1,200-student school. About 200 mourners who turned out, many weeping, with the teen's mother at a candlelight vigil Thursday night. Classes were canceled Friday at the high school, but the building was available for students to gather and meet with grief counselors.

"It's really hard to imagine that this has happened," said Dennis Ragan, the school's wrestling coach, who worked with Williams in freshman football and, for a time, wrestling. "He was a super young man."

Webb knew that all too well. Through tears on Friday, she described her son as squeaky clean, never having used cigarettes, drugs or alcohol. He spoke Japanese and Spanish, had a bevy of multicultural friends and had mastered his Xbox 360 video game console.

"He was just a tremendously smart kid," said Webb.

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