The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

‘Why Didn’t The Lightning Hit Us?’

By Steven Luxenberg

On May 23 last year, Carl Ruskin was struck down in an abandoned church while waiting out a thunderstorm. Ever since, the author, who was crouching with his children just a few feet away, has been searching for an answer to his three-year-old son’s question

On a warm, sunny Saturday morning last fall, my son, Josh, sat on the living room floor of our house in Northeast Baltimore, my wife’s guitar on his tiny lap. He was shouting his way through the words to “London Bridge” in the tuneless way that 3-year-olds do. “Josh,” I said. “It’s time to go over to Andrea’s house to feed the cats.”

He jumped up, the guitar crashing to the floor. “Yippee,” he yelled. I smiled. I could imagine what he was thinking: We only feed the cats when Andrea and Mollie go away for the weekend. I’ll have Mollie’s toys to myself.

We went out the back door and down the back steps. I offered Josh my hand, but he wasn’t interested. “I’m the leader!” he said.

The sun was so bright that I had to shield my eyes. As we crossed the street, Josh suddenly turned to me and said, “Daddy, where was Andrea sitting when the lightning hit Carl?”

I stiffened a little, as I always do when he asks questions about the accident. I remember thinking: He hasn’t mentioned it for weeks. What triggered his memory?

“She was sitting right next to him,” I said.

“Did the lightning hit her, too?”

I looked at him closely. He seemed more curious than concerned. “Yes, it did,” I said. “But she got better. She’s all better now.”

“Why did the lightning hit Carl?”

It was the same question he always asked, the one I never quite knew how to answer. Don’t say it was an accident. That isn’t what he wants to know.

“It was an accident, Josh.”

Of course, it was more than that. It was the moment when Josh learned, firsthand and all too soon, about death. On May 23, 1987, our neighbor Carl Ruskin, 37, was struck and killed by lightning while sitting on the floor of an abandoned chapel in Baltimore’s Leakin Park, waiting for a sudden rainstorm to end. His wife, Andrea Cohen, 33, was next to him, her right shoulder touching his left arm. The electrical charge flowed from Carl to Andrea, temporarily paralyzing her.

Josh and I were six feet away. My other child, 14-month-old Jill, was even closer. She and Mollie, who was then 16 months old, were playing along the edge of an empty wooden pew, just four feet from where Carl and Andrea were sitting.

Our two families had come to the park for an outdoor herb festival. When a sudden rainstorm swept over the area shortly after 2 p.m., we sought refuge in the chapel, along with more than 80 others. The only one missing was my wife, Mary Jo Kirschman, who had gone for a last look at the herb exhibits just before the rain began falling.

After it was over, after six ambulances had arrived, after Carl and 11 other injured people had been taken to four hospitals, after two dozen firefighters had battled a roaring blaze that nearly destroyed the century-old chapel, after more than 650 people had filled Beth Am synagogue for Carl’s funeral, what remained were questions—mine, Josh’s, many other people’s.

“Why didn’t the lightning hit us?” Josh asked as we reached the steps of Andrea’s house.

He had never asked this question before, although I knew he would someday. Nonetheless, I was startled. For months, I had been wrestling with what I would say. Well, here it is. Why don’t I have an answer?

“Because,” I finally said, “we were lucky.”

Others remember the humidity on the morning of May 23; I remember the cicadas.

After their 17-year hibernation, they had finally emerged, taking over our back porch and patio. That morning, jar in hand, Josh hurried down the back stairs to the patio, his sandals making a flapping noise with each step. It didn’t take long for him to collect half a dozen cicadas, which he carefully put into the jar with several sticks and clumps of grass. Occasionally, he found one that wasn’t moving. I explained that some had died, that there were too many for all of them to survive. He didn’t seem bothered by this. “I’ll get a new one,” he said.

Josh was still catching cicadas when Carl and Mollie appeared at our backyard fence. They were frequent visitors. On many days after work, and sometimes on weekends as well, Carl would take Mollie out for a walk. If Josh saw Carl first, he would call out excitedly, “Hi, Carl!” and Carl would wander over.

Through Carl, Josh learned about living in a neighborhood. Carl was the man who walked to the corner to catch the bus in the morning, the man who helped Andrea run the hot dog stand at our annual neighborhood fair, the man who pushed cars out of the snow. In Josh’s fast-changing world, Carl was a constant.

Once, when Josh was looking at our wedding photographs, I pointed out Carl and Andrea. Josh had no trouble recognizing them, even though the photos were six years old. Andrea’s dark brown hair was longer and curlier, long enough to fall on her shoulders, but there was no mistaking her delicately shaped face or the cheerful look in her eyes. Carl had the same dark mustache and beard, neatly trimmed as always. The mustache dipped at the ends of his mouth and met his beard, making his face seem squarer than it was. It also made him seem somewhat intense and intimidating, but that was offset by his wry, almost mischievous smile. “Where’s Mollie?” Josh asked.

“That was before she was born,” I said.

I told him that we had known Carl and Andrea for eight years. “That’s pretty long,” he said knowingly. “That’s as old as Mommy.”

Mary Jo met Carl in 1979. She was working on a campaign to enact a rent control law in Baltimore, supervising the large number of volunteers who were trying to get the referendum approved over the mayor’s objections. Carl, who was working then for the city’s planning department, wanted to help. But because of his city job, he felt he had to do it without attracting attention, so he was put in charge of research that could be done quietly.

He was, then and later, a man who wanted to make a difference, a man who felt passionately about the world and the city where he worked and lived. He loved cities—it was in his blood, having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and having attended both high school and college there. In 1972, he came to Baltimore to get a master’s degree in community planning at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and Community Planning and never left.

When my wife first got to know him, he was just getting a fresh start after a difficult period. Recently divorced, he had moved to a small apartment in the city and had started to date Andrea, a graphic designer who also worked at that time for the city. We spent time together as a foursome, even went away for a weekend in the country. But over the next few years, we drifted apart. Occasionally, because of my job then as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I would talk with Carl about some story involving the city. Otherwise, we saw little of each other.

Then, in December 1985, Mary Jo and I saw them at a party and told them we were thinking of moving to their neighborhood. A few days later, Carl called to say that a house across the street might be going on the market.

A few months later, we were neighbors.

Our wall calendar has two notations for May 23: “Teddy Bear Day at the zoo” and “pool opens for weekends.”

The zoo event sounded like fun—you were encouraged to bring along your favorite teddy bear—but Mary Jo reminded me that she had just taken the kids to the zoo the previous week. I suggested we skip it in favor of the pool, which seemed the best place to take two kids on a hot and humid day. Mary Jo suggested a third option—the first annual Baltimore Herb Festival at Leakin Park in West Baltimore. Andrea had mentioned it to her and had suggested we all go together.

Carl had a professional reason for going. He had recently been appointed to a task force on the city’s parks, just one of many projects he had taken on since becoming chief of planning for Baltimore’s housing and community development agency, a high-ranking position that made him a central figure in the city’s redevelopment efforts. The herb festival would give him a chance to see firsthand how Leakin Park handled such an event.

But he wasn’t giving up on the possibility that he could make it to Teddy Bear Day, too. He emerged from his house in a Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirt, part of a matching pair that Andrea had bought in California years before. Remembering this months later, Andrea said she was surprised when she saw Carl in the shirt. He had never worn it in public before. “From the day I bought it, he never liked it,” she said. “He didn’t say why. I finally asked him about it. He told me, ‘I’ve struggled so hard to be an adult. Wearing that shirt makes me feel like a child.’ ”

We arrived at the park about 12:30 p.m. The humidity was so bad that we all complained about it; Josh, however, was in a world of his own. Around his neck was an empty two-pound coffee can that Mary Jo had converted into a drum; he was banging away with a yellow plastic drumstick.

Then he spotted the trains. Near the park entrance is a miniature railroad operated and maintained by the Chesapeake and Allegheny Live Steam Preservation Society, a group of local train buffs. Josh was entranced. He has always loved trains, I suspect because I take one to work and he sometimes comes to the station to see me off. When he was younger, he used to ask me: “Did you take train to Washington Post, Daddy?,” as if The Post were a city.

Mollie liked riding the trains, too. She and her parents were quite a sight: Carl in his Pooh T-shirt, Andrea in her wide-brimmed Amish hat, Mollie between them, barely visible. Mollie is small anyway—her arms and legs are so thin that her clothes often look baggy—but she looked especially tiny inside the box-like compartments where the children sat. Andrea handed her camera to Mary Jo and asked her to take a photograph of the three of them, but the train began to move. “Don’t worry,” Andrea said. “We’ll take one later.”

When it was time to go, Josh put up a fuss. “Okay,” I said, “one more ride.” I stayed behind to watch him; Carl, Andrea, Mollie, Mary Jo and Jill went ahead without us. When Josh and I finally got to the festival entrance, I didn’t even notice the old wooden chapel. I was too busy trying to keep track of Josh, who was running ahead of me.

By the time we saw Mary Jo and Jill again, Josh was bored. I agreed to take both kids to the trains while Mary Jo took one more look at the herbs. As we headed across the field, Josh at my side and Jill in Mollie’s stroller, I noticed the chapel for the first time, framed against a suddenly darkening sky. The windows caught my eye first. Large, diamond-shaped openings, they did not seem to have any glass in them. The rest of the building was plain, almost spartan, despite its Gothic-style arched roof.

A minute later, the rain came, a drenching downpour. I hesitated, trying to decide whether to run for the car or look for Mary Jo. Someone shouted, “Let’s go to the church.”

left the stroller outside the chapel and carried Jill inside. Josh ran toward the altar, the metal coffee can still swinging from a string around his neck. The air was musty and stale, the floors and heavy wooden pews dusty and dirty. No electric lights were visible, and there appeared to be no electric wiring.

There were eight pews on each side. I started to sit down in the front-row pew on the right side, but then I noticed the sign: “Unstable. Do not sit.”

Jill was crawling around in the area between the communion rail and the altar. She was wearing a white blouse, a rare occurrence, and it was already filthy. She wasn’t walking yet, so the alternative was to hold her on my lap. I decided to let her crawl. I remember thinking: Can’t skip her bath tonight.

Carl, Andrea and Mollie appeared at the doorway. I waved, and they came down the aisle and joined us. They saw the warning on the pew and decided to sit on the floor, beneath one of the windows. I crouched in the aisle, monitoring Jill and Mollie as they played along the edge of the pew and feeding them the remains of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Josh sat behind me by the altar, happily playing with a balloon.

A woman named Bridget Maginn stood up in the altar area and announced that the Rev. Roger Johnson, a Pentecostal preacher who had been scheduled to give a lecture in the chapel, wanted to go ahead with his talk. “I don’t know much about growing herbs,” Johnson began. “But I know something about herbs in the Bible.” He then told the story of the “bitter herbs,” eaten during the Jewish Passover meal as a reminder of the Jews’ struggle to win freedom from the Egyptians, who had enslaved them. As Johnson talked, the thunder grew louder. I remember thinking: This is crazy. I’m in an abandoned Catholic church in a thunderstorm, listening to a fundamentalist preacher describe one of my religious holidays.

I glanced at Carl and Andrea, both Jewish, and rolled my eyes.

Seconds later, there was a flash of light and a tremendous force knocked me to the floor. In the split second it took for me to fall, I thought: Very loud thunder. Jilly’s probably scared. Get up and get her.

It never occurred to me that lightning had struck the chapel. Unhurt but slightly dazed, I sat up and reached for Jill.

The back of Carl’s shirt was on fire.

Oh my God.

Carl’s body was rigid, locked in a sitting position, his right arm braced against the floor. Andrea, too, was rigid, her shoulders straight back against the wall.

Then I saw their eyes.

Carl’s were blank, expressionless, without a hint of comprehension. Andrea’s, however, showed confusion and alarm. She was moving her head slowly from side to side, like a marionette, struggling to make her lips move.

I grabbed my daughter’s diaper bag to put out the fire on Carl’s shirt. By the time I reached him, another man was already there, smothering the fire. Stay calm, whatever you do, stay calm. I turned toward the crowd and said as deliberately as I could: “This man is very badly hurt. Someone go call an ambulance.” I saw someone head for the exit, and then a man appeared, a big, blond man wearing a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, and he said, “I know CPR.” Several other people rushed forward as well.

The next moment is one that I have replayed in my mind many times. It is my moment of guilt, my turn to question what I did and why.

I turned away from Carl and Andrea, away from Carl’s blank expression and Andrea’s look of alarm, and I looked for my children. Later, I convinced myself that I had done all I could, that Carl and Andrea were getting help, that it had been necessary to focus on Josh and Jill—and, I quickly realized, Mollie.

They were all crying. I scooped up Jill in one arm, then Mollie in the other, and told Josh to hold on to my pants leg. We made our way to the chapel entrance. There was no panic. Everyone moved slowly, as if dazed.

At the entrance, a knot of people stood on the tiny porch, under the overhang of the roof. The lightning and thunder were all around us, it was still raining hard, and then someone said, “There’s a house over there,” triggering the crowd to lurch forward. Josh lost his grip on my pants. He stretched out his arms, but couldn’t reach me through the maze of adult legs. “Daddy, Daddy!” he screamed. Using my shoulder, I pushed someone out of the way and grabbed him.

A man came running out of the house across the way. Someone lives there. Thank God, someone lives there. On my way down the steps, I saw Mollie’s stroller, its cloth seat filled with water. Leave it. Leave the damned stroller.

A woman offered to take Mollie or Jill. I recoiled, then realized I was overreacting. “I’m okay,” I said. “Let’s go across to that house.”

The woman took Josh’s hand, and we walked out into the rain.

The door was open. A woman guided me to a couch and said, “Do you want something to drink? A Coke?” I looked at her in amazement.

The door burst open and in came several people carrying a woman whose body was still rigid. It finally dawned on me that others had been hurt. They’ll bring Carl and Andrea in here. Might be unconscious. Can’t let Mollie see them.

The injured kept coming. We moved to the dining room first, then the kitchen, then finally to the laundry room. Someone brought a chair in, but I sat on the blue-and-white-checked linoleum floor with the three kids around me, talking calmly to them, trying to settle them down. Mollie kept asking for her mother. Josh still had the metal coffee can around his neck. I stared at him. A metal can. We had come within six feet of being hit by lightning, and my son had a metal can around his neck.

An older woman sat down with us. Later, I realized she was Bridget Maginn, the woman who had introduced the preacher. I was grateful for her presence; she held Josh on her lap while I changed Jill’s and Mollie’s diapers. Carefully choosing my words so as not to upset Josh, I explained to her that Mollie’s father had been hit by the lightning. She listened silently, her hand over her mouth. At the end, she looked at Mollie, who was sitting on my lap. “Poor child,” she murmured. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be holding an orphan.

Then Josh, who was still sitting on Bridget’s lap, began asking questions.

“Is this house safe, Daddy?” “Yes, Josh, this house is safe,” I said, wondering, Is it? How can I be sure? “Why?” he said.

“Because houses are made so that the lightning won’t come inside.”

“Why did Carl fall down, Daddy?”

I took a deep breath. “He was hit by the lightning.”

“Why did the men come running?”

“What men?”

“Big men. Carl fell down, and they came running.”

“They were coming to help him because he was hurt.”

“When will he be better?” “I don’t know, Josh. He’s very sick. He was hurt very badly.”

“Was Andrea hurt, too?”

“Yes, but not as badly as Carl.” There were more questions, but those are the ones that I remember most clearly. He asked some of them over and over: Why did Carl fall down? Why did the lightning hit Carl? I kept telling myself: Be patient. Be truthful, but be reassuring, too.

We had been in the laundry room a long time, maybe 15 minutes. We hadn’t heard any sirens yet. I asked Bridget to see if Carl and Andrea were among the injured in the other rooms. Although I feared Carl might be dead, I thought Andrea, if she had lost consciousness, would wake up soon. “She’ll be hysterical if she doesn’t know where Mollie is,” I said.

Meanwhile, Mollie and Jill had grown accustomed to their surroundings and were happily exploring the laundry room. Jill crawled over to a screen door, which someone had opened to let in fresh air, and Josh ran over to stop her. “No, Jilly!” he said, grabbing her. “Don’t go outside. You might get hurt by the lightning.”

Bridget returned. No sign of Carl or Andrea. Where could they be?

It was still raining, but the lightning seemed to have stopped. Bridget asked if she could do anything else. “You could go look for my wife,” I said, describing Mary Jo. “She’s somewhere in the park.” I felt guilty about sending her out in the rain, but I desperately wanted to see Mary Jo.

A siren wailed. I heard great activity in the other rooms, and loud voices. I opened the door to the kitchen and saw paramedics bringing in stretchers. One paramedic, in a dark blue uniform, was talking to a man in shorts, apparently a doctor who had been attending the festival. I heard the man say, “We have a disaster here.”

People kept coming in to check on us, but no one knew anything about Carl or Andrea. Finally, a police officer appeared. “Is there a child back here named Mollie?” he asked.

I jumped up.

“Her mother’s asking for her,” he said, reaching out. “Here, I’ll take her.”

Take her? After all this? The hell you will. “No,” I said. “I can take her.”

I left Josh with a woman who had offered to watch him, but I didn’t want to leave Jill. Carrying her in one arm and Mollie in the other, I followed the officer as he threaded his way through the injured, still lying on the floor in the kitchen, the dining room and the living room. The officer took me to an ambulance parked on the lane between the house and the chapel, which was burning. Andrea was sitting in the front seat, wrapped in a blanket and sobbing uncontrollably. Someone was trying to comfort her. I handed Mollie to her. They hugged for a long time, Andrea saying over and over, “Mollie, Mollie.” Andrea didn’t recognize me.

I asked a nearby paramedic about Carl. “He’s in cardiac arrest,” he said.

How long? “I’m not sure,” said the paramedic. “We don’t know exactly what happened before we arrived.”

By this time, the rain had stopped. I asked someone to see if Mary Jo was waiting at our car. A few minutes later, Mary Jo came walking toward the house. The four of us hugged for a long time. Then, Mary Jo said: “Well, I wonder where Carl and Andrea are.” Oh my God. She doesn’t know. For the first time, I began to cry.

I pulled Mary Jo close and quickly explained that Carl had been struck. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she kept saying, “No! No!” As we walked to the ambulance to see Andrea, a voice called out from the rear, “We’ve got a heartbeat!” At least 12 minutes had passed since the paramedic had told me Carl was in cardiac arrest. There must be brain damage.

Mary Jo told Andrea that we would meet her at the hospital. Stepping over the maze of criss-crossed fire hoses, we made our way to our car. Behind us, the chapel was still in flames.

When we arrived at Sinai Hospital 20 minutes later, the sun was shining. Josh asked questions the entire way.

We took Mollie home with us for the night. Andrea stayed to be with Carl, who was still unconscious and breathing only with the help of a respirator. The doctors also wanted to keep her for observation. She seemed to have recovered completely, but she could remember nothing between the talk about the bitter herbs and being handed Mollie in ambulance.

Later that night, after we got the kids to sleep, Mary Jo and I went out on our front porch. It was our first chance to talk in detail, and as I re-enacted what had happened in the chapel, Mary Jo realized how close we had come to being struck.

Her story was harrowing, too. At first she huddled under a tree. Then, terrified by the intensity of the lightning, she made her way to the chapel. It was so crowded that she decided not to go inside, standing instead in the vestibule. When the lightning struck, someone shouted, “Get out, get out,” and she was pushed outside. There, she saw two people writhing on the ground, trying without success to get up. Thinking they were the only victims and certain that Josh, Jill and I were not inside, she ran through the rain to look for us, stopping at parked cars to urge those inside to go for help.

Later that night, Andrea called. Carl was still unconscious. His lungs were severely damaged, his brain showed almost no activity, and his heartbeat, while regular, was weak. From the beginning, the doctors had told her he was unlikely to survive.

He died at 2:35 p.m. the next day.

By the time Andrea came home a few hours later, some friends and relatives had already arrived. When she saw me, she said, “I want to know what happened. I want you to tell me everything you remember.” I promised to come over the next morning.

That day, as I recounted to friends what had happened and what Carl looked like in that split second after the lightning struck, I found myself thinking back to the way my father looked just before he died, seven years earlier.

I was 28 at the time. He was 67, suffering from hardening arteries, and he had gone into the hospital for triple-bypass surgery. On the operating table, he had a heart attack, followed by several more within the next 12 hours; at one point, it took 20 minutes to restart his heart. To the doctors’ surprise, he lived through the night, long enough for me to see him one more time. At 4 a.m., my mother and I approached his bed in the intensive care unit. Amazingly, he seemed alert, although he had tubes in his mouth and could not speak. When I touched his hand, he looked at me, and the look in his eyes was one of sheer terror, a look that said, “Help me, please help me.” I stood there, unable to do anything other than hold his hand. Four hours later, he died.

After Josh was born, I imagined conversations with him about my father’s death, anticipating the day when he might ask me about it. One morning, when he was 2, he figured out that my father was not part of his life. He began to list his grandparents. There were Grandma and Pop-Pop and Grandma Beth—“But, but, but,” he stammered, “where is, where is . . . ?”

“My daddy?”

He nodded.

We talked about how my father had lived a long time, how he had done a lot of things in his life and was happy. I didn’t tell him that his death was painful and terrifying.

Every so often, he would bring it up again: Did he live a long time? Why did he die? Why was he buried in the ground?

Those conversations became more important as Mary Jo and I considered how to tell Josh about Carl’s death. We had been preparing Josh for that possibility, telling him that Carl was very sick, that the doctors were trying to make him better. Still, Mary Jo wanted to get some advice. The morning after Carl died, she called a friend, Mary Mueller, a social worker who has helped young children deal with death. Mary said 3-year-olds believe death is reversible, and she predicted Josh’s questions would follow that reasoning.

Later that day, we took Josh into the kitchen. We had decided earlier that it might seem less threatening if we sat at the child-size table where he sometimes eats. I never felt more like a father, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for the responsibility.

Mary Jo went first. “Josh,” she said, “remember we said that Carl was very sick, and the doctors were trying to make him better? Well, Carl didn’t get better. He died.”

”Why?” Josh asked.

She explained that the lightning had hurt Carl badly, that the doctors couldn’t “fix” him.

“Will there be a new Carl?”

“No,” Mary Jo said. “There won’t be a new Carl. There was only one Carl.”

“But where did Carl go?”

Struggling to reassure him, I said, “Well, the nice things about Carl—the laughing, the talking, the playing—they all go to a place where there is lots of laughing and talking and playing. And his bones and body go into the ground.” I felt myself wince. If I’m not sure I believe it, why am I telling him that?

Later, I thought about Josh’s questions. Josh did not believe that death was reversible, but he thought that Carl could be replaced, that there could be a “new” Carl.

Suddenly, it made sense. It was the same as getting a “new” cicada.

Andrea was sitting with two friends at her kitchen table when I arrived. I felt self-conscious. I was about to describe how her husband was killed, and I had an audience.

Andrea made it easier. “Tell me everything you can,” she said, her voice shaking slightly, her eyes puffy and red. “I really want to know.” I was glad for my reporter’s training; she seemed to appreciate my detailed descriptions. When it came time to describe how she and Carl looked in the moments after the lightning struck, I stopped. Our eyes met, and she nodded for me to continue.

At the end, tears streaming down both our faces, she thanked me, again and again, for taking care of Mollie. Still, she said, “There’s so much I don’t know.”

The newspaper coverage didn’t shed much light. One article said: “Two men trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, on hand in case of an emergency, responded quickly. Then a doctor and nurse visiting the festival came to help.” It didn’t explain how Carl was treated or why it took an ambulance 15 minutes to get there. A witness was quoted as saying the lightning “was attracted by three large trees.” Another said it came in through the windows. A third said it hit the roof. A fourth said a woman’s blouse caught fire, which I suspected was a reference to Carl.

One thing seemed clear: Carl’s injuries were so severe that probably nothing could have saved him. The doctors had told Andrea that the lightning hit the back of his head, continued down through his heart and lungs and then left his body through his right arm. Burns marked both the entry and exit wounds. And yet . . .

Carl’s funeral was the next day, Tuesday, May 26. I wanted to go, to see other people who knew him, to make a connection. We were just getting to know each other better again. I told my friends that his death seemed so unfair—more than most of my friends, he seemed truly happy with his family and his work.

As I listened to the words of cantor Harry London, I found little comfort. “At this moment,” London said, “we all want to hurl thunderbolts in the face of the heavens . . . and then we realize the very same nature, the very same creation that we have seen at its most ferocious, most sudden, most terrifying, most undiscriminating, is the very same nature that we have seen in Carl at its most human, most caring, most committed, most supportive, most reassuring.”

The cantor gave way to six friends whose eulogies provided a feeling of intimacy often missing from large funerals. Their descriptions of Carl rang true. He was not only gentle, loving, a good listener and a fine urban planner; he could also be stubborn and reckless.

The final eulogy was the most intimate, written by Maria Courie, his therapist before and during the breakup of his first marriage. Because Courie was ill and could not attend the funeral, someone read the eulogy for her.

“When Carl and I first met, I looked at that beautiful, sad, almost tortured young face . . . and I felt his longing, his uncertainty, his very deep caring and his almost painful shyness. He talked big, he said, but underneath he felt he knew nothing, nothing. We began to talk then, and somehow, transcending the lessons at hand, we found ourselves speaking of love, of work and of knowledge.”

Carl wanted it all—the perfect relationship, beautiful children, a job where he could make a difference—but he had lost his way. “Maria,” he said, “help me get going.”

Gradually, she said, “Carl came to see how there really was no one out there to blame—the faults all begin within us.” He worked hard at understanding himself, at learning what he already knew. He adopted two lines from a famous Robert Frost poem as a kind of motto: “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

After his therapy ended, they kept in touch. She saw him just a few months before he died. “He rushed over to me, all aglow, and gave me a big, excited hug. ‘I made it!’ he cried exultantly. ‘I’ve almost got it all! I love my life, I love my wife, I love my daughter, my mother, my relatives, my friends, I love my work, my zest, my creativity . . . and most of all, I’ve come to love me.’ “All I could do was hug him.” She then told a story about how Carl had helped her in a time of grief. “I told Carl how I had gone to the window and looked out at the stars. ‘Why me, God,’ I had asked. ‘Why me?’ And instantly I ‘heard’ an answer shoot right back: ‘Why not you?’ . . . On telling Carl this, he had looked thoughtful and said, ‘Yeah, why not you? Why not any of us? Any time. Anywhere.’

“It was around then, I think, that I began to grasp, as indeed he already had, the concept that what makes us special is simply that we are all highly specialized parts of this great universe—every single one of us is needed as much as any leaf on a tree or pebble on a beach. For without the leaves, without the pebbles, there would be no land, no shore . . . We live and are meaningful, effective, whether we do anything about it or not. We also die and are meaningful, effective, even in death. Just look at all of us here now . . .

“Good night, sweet prince. No more promises to keep. Sleep; sleep well.”

On the morning after the funeral, Josh and I were sitting on the couch, talking about what to eat for breakfast. Suddenly, he said: “Daddy, this night I dreamed there was a new Carl.” “You did?” “Yep.” “And what did you dream?” “I dreamed there was a new Carl, and he looked just like you!” he said.

I couldn’t decide whether this exchange was unsettling or healthy. Over the next few weeks, it became clear that he was still wrestling with the incident, and that our answers to his many questions stayed with him. One day, after Mary Jo picked him up from day care, he talked about the accident for most of the five-minute ride home. “Mollie’s not going to die, because people live a long time,” he said. “But Carl had an accident. Andrea had an accident, too, but the men came and helped her. Why did Andrea go to the hospital? Does Carl still have bones? Did Carl wear his Pooh shirt?” Mary Jo and I routinely checked with each other for any sign that he was having trouble. We even began to write down some of our conversations with him. But he seemed to be doing fine. He was sleeping well, which he usually doesn’t when he’s upset. The only time he seemed frightened was, predictably, during thunderstorms. If we were at the swimming pool, Josh would announce, “It’s going to lightning,” pronouncing it “light-ten-ning.” Then he’d say, “Let’s go to the car. Hurry, let’s run!”

For the next several months, we lived with the accident looking over our shoulders. It didn’t take much to trigger my memory: a camera flash, a sudden noise, a spark from a departing subway car. All Mary Jo had to do was look out the window toward Andrea’s house. One morning at breakfast, as she gazed out the window, she said, “I can’t believe he’s dead. I look over there, expecting to see him walking down the street with Mollie.”

Andrea tried to adjust to life without Carl. She made a special effort to get out of the house, she said, because she feared that she might become a recluse. She attended meetings of a “widows group”—where she could talk with other young women whose husbands had died—and went into therapy. Her friends marveled at her strength, her toughness, her willingness to talk about Carl’s death.

But it was hard for us to tell how well she was doing. When I asked her one day, she said, “I’m still so numb, I’m not really sure.” Mostly, she worried about Mollie; perhaps it was easier than worrying about herself. “Before, there were always two of us to decide how to handle a situation,” she said. “Now that there’s only me, I find myself constantly wondering, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ” Whenever we talked about the accident or its consequences, she inevitably described how difficult it was for her to accept that she had no memory of it: “There are such huge gaps.”

I, too, wanted to know more. As a journalist, I was trained to look for “holes” in stories. Now, confronted with such “holes,” my instinct was to try to fill them. I had been wrestling with the idea of doing an article about the accident. Wouldn’t other parents find it helpful to see how we dealt with Josh’s questions and fears? But I wondered whether Andrea would feel exploited, whether I was capable of writing something so personal.

Andrea, however, was enthusiastic. I think she saw it partly as a tribute to Carl, partly as a way to answer some of her questions. I told her that she could read the final draft. “I don’t know how it will turn out,” I said. “Even if it never gets published, it will be a record for Mollie and Josh.”

On Nov. 6, a cold and blustery Friday, I got into my car and headed for Leakin Park. For months, I had made half-hearted efforts to work on the article. I assured myself that I wasn’t avoiding it, that I was too busy with other projects that couldn’t be put off. But the truth was that I hadn’t been emotionally ready to confront it.

I wanted to see the chapel again, to hurdle that obstacle. Since the accident, it had taken on an air of mystery. Was there an iron cross on top that might have attracted the lightning, as some people had said? Was there a metal grate over the window where Carl was sitting? Was it part of a wealthy family’s summer estate, as I had been told? If so, why was it so spartan?

The chapel was padlocked. I went around to the side and looked at the roof. There were four jagged holes, made by the firefighters so they could get to the fire in the rafters. Sheets of tattered plastic, placed over the holes to keep the rain out, flapped ineffectively in the wind.

There were two crosses, not one, but they were made of wood. So much for that theory. The windows, however, were covered with metal grates. But that didn’t explain why people were hurt outside the chapel, as Mary Jo had witnessed.

I hadn’t expected to find many answers there, and I didn’t.

Over the next month, however, I did find some answers, including some I hadn’t expected. I looked at police, fire and medical records, obtained ambulance dispatch logs and interviewed witnesses. I also contacted all of the injured, mostly because I felt an obligation to tell them about the article and to make sure they had recovered.

Here’s what I learned:

The chapel. Built in 1860-61, it had no lightning protection. The driving force behind its construction was Celeste Winans, the wife of Thomas Winans, a railroad magnate who built a large summer estate on the land in the 1850s. Celeste Winans, a devout Catholic, wanted the estate’s servants and tenants to have a place to worship. As the chapel was nearing completion, she died in childbirth. It was never used until 1983, and then opened only on rare occasions for festivals. It needed repair, and one purpose of the herb festival was to raise money for restoration and maintenance.

I arranged to go inside the chapel to look for clues to explain the lightning’s path. A lightning expert, Dr. Martin A. Uman of the University of Florida, had told me what to look for—branch-like streaks in wood and telltale spots left on metal—but the evidence I found was inconclusive and confusing.

The ambulances. The first one to arrive, Medic Unit 16, got to the park 14 minutes after the fire department received the initial 911 call at 2:37 p.m., according to dispatch logs. Medic 8, which is based closer to the park, had trouble getting its engine started and didn’t get there until 3:15, the fourth of six ambulances to respond, according to fire officials.

Later, I learned something from a park official that made the delay seem less important. Two paramedics—assigned to the festival by the city health department unit that provides emergency medical care at major city events—reached the chapel within three minutes of the initial 911 call, according to city records. They were the two men trained in CPR mentioned in the newspaper reports after the accident. Although they did not have the advanced lifesaving equipment carried in fire department ambulances, one helped do CPR on Carl while his colleague tended to the other victims.

The injured. Tracking them down took some detective work, but it made me understand that the impact of the accident was far wider than I had imagined. All had recovered physically, although it took several months for two men to regain full use of their left feet. Nearly everyone was still struggling to come to terms emotionally with the accident; after I finished asking my questions, most people quizzed me about what I had learned.

Robin Walton, 34, remembers sitting in the middle of the chapel and listening to the thunder get louder and louder. People were murmuring, “Is it safe to be here?” Frightened, she stood up to look for her mother, who was sitting several pews in front of her. “There was a horrible crack,” she said. “I looked up. I saw the lightning come down the sides and go up toward the ceiling, where it hit this iron ornament and set off a ball of fire in mid-air. You could see the electricity. Sparks were everywhere.” An arc of lightning hit her left leg, causing a minor burn that she didn’t notice until much later, after she helped care for others who were hurt.

At the end of the same pew, underneath a window, electricity entered 58-year-old Ethel Housekeeper’s left shoulder and exited her left foot, melting her nylon stocking and paralyzing her left side for several hours.

Directly in front of Housekeeper, sitting in a pew near another window, Diane Hyde, 29, leaned against the chapel wall. The lightning entered her left shoulder and exited her foot, leaving a reddish trail along her back and immobilizing her from the waist down. It took more than five hours for her paralysis to wear off, and it took three weeks to regain full strength in her legs. Inside her Nike shoe, she later discovered, was a burn mark where the electricity had come out. At the rear of the chapel, Cheryl Hindes, 33, knew something was wrong. She turned to alert her fiancé, Steven Snyder, 36, and saw a flash of light hit his left shoulder. Her left shoulder was touching his body and it went numb, but she recovered quickly.

Snyder was sitting under a window, too. He went rigid, his head thrown back, his eyes wide open, his left foot stuck to the floor as if welded there. He apparently stopped breathing momentarily, a common occurrence for a lightning victim. “I felt like I was at the bottom of a swimming pool, trying desperately to get to the surface,” he recalled later. When the paralysis on his left side wore off the next day, he found that the muscles in his left foot were damaged. For several months, he had to take painkilling drugs, which made it difficult to concentrate, and it took until fall for his foot muscles to heal.

Outside the chapel, to the left of the entrance, Stanley and Janet Gower and their 4-year-old son, Brandon, were knocked off their feet. Brandon, bleeding from a cut in his head that later required five stitches to close, started to wander away. His parents, temporarily paralyzed and writhing on the ground, screamed for someone to get him. Robin Walton, who had emerged from inside, grabbed Brandon. She stayed with him the rest of the afternoon, while his parents were being treated. For months, Stanley Gower had some tightness in his left foot.

To the right of the entrance, Stephen Height, 32, leaned against the building, his left foot in a puddle of water. His wife, Nancy Everett, 29, stood in front of him. The electrical current entered his elbow and went out his left foot, throwing him to the ground. Everett, a nurse trained in CPR, felt a momentary weight on her head—“as if someone had placed a ton of bricks on me”—and then the sensation was gone, although there was some lingering numbness. As she examined Height, she heard that someone inside the chapel needed CPR. Height assured her that he was okay, and she went inside to help.

Several common threads ran through the victims’ accounts. All were wet or standing in water. Except for Robin Walton, who was standing up, all those hurt inside were sitting under windows covered by metal grates or touching someone next to those windows. When I recounted this to Uman, the lightning expert, he was surprised. He speculated that the lightning had consisted of several “strokes,” at least one of which came inside the chapel and struck the iron ornament in the ceiling, while the others traveled down the outside wall. Reminding me that lightning always seeks the easiest path to ground, he suggested the metal grates had created small electrical fields that attracted the lightning, which then jumped to the victims. The first stroke, which usually contains the strongest current, was probably the one that killed Carl.

Outside the chapel, Brett Moore—waiting out the storm in his truck about 50 yards away—saw the lightning hit a tree branch about 10 feet above the roof. “No more than a minute or a minute and a half later, a woman was beating on the window and yelling at me to drive to the park headquarters and call 911. She said three or four people were hurt.”

Meanwhile, word spread through the park that people had been injured. Park administrator Gail Abrams, who at that moment was trying to prevent an outdoor tent from collapsing under the weight of the rainwater, sprinted across the festival grounds, calling for a doctor as she ran. A man dressed in shorts heard her—apparently the same man I saw in the house—and came running with her.

In the house across the way, where the injured were eventually taken, Darlene and Lee Eagan had just come home. Lee happened to be looking out the window when the lightning struck. He ran to the door and hollered into the rain, “Anyone hurt?” Someone yelled, “Yes,” and he ran to the chapel.

Inside, the big, blond man in the Harley-Davidson T-shirt and Nancy Everett were already doing CPR on Carl.

I remember my reaction when Lee told me this: He got treatment right away. He really did get treatment. It was okay for me to leave.

never found the man in the Harley-Davidson shirt. But I found Nancy Everett, and by finding her, I found some answers to my remaining questions.

She reached Carl, she said, within two minutes of the lightning strike. When she got there, he was in cardiac arrest. CPR was already underway, with the Harley-Davidson man doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and a woman doing chest compressions.

The woman was clearly inexperienced, so Everett coached her. “Her technique wasn’t bad, she was just a little shaky,” she said. When the woman tired, Everett took over. The Harley-Davidson man set the pace: one breath for every five compressions, a standard ratio. “We were creating a good pulse,” she said, “but when we stopped, there was nothing.” She had plenty of CPR training, but all her experience was in a hospital setting. “This was my first emergency in the field.”

Carl started to turn blue, a sign that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. The Harley-Davidson man stepped up the ratio, going to one breath for every three compressions. At this point, one of the health department paramedics, Danny Christ, arrived and took over the chest compressions from Everett. By this time, the chapel was on fire. Moving swiftly, Danny Christ and the Harley-Davidson man carried Carl out to the blacktop lane in front of the chapel. There, in the rain and the lightning, they began CPR again. Carl still was not breathing on his own. Then, he began to vomit, a frequent complication in CPR. “That meant too much air was going to his stomach,” Everett said. “It was a worry, but a lot of people throw up and still make it.”

The Harley-Davidson man was still doing the mouth-to-mouth breathing, but he was getting woozy from taking the vomit in his mouth. He leaned back and said, “I just can’t do it.” Everett took over. “For some reason, it didn’t bother me,” she said. “I was surprised, but I was just spitting it out.”

A crowd had formed around them. A woman took off her slip and laid it in front of Everett, who used it to wipe the vomit from her mouth. They still had no heartbeat when the first ambulance arrived. Using a combination of drugs and electroshock, the paramedics from Medic 16 worked for another 13 minutes before they restarted Carl’s heart.

“I thought about what we did for a long time afterward,” she said. “Was the ratio right? Could our technique have been better?”

I remember thinking: We all question our actions, even those who should be proudest of themselves.

Taking out the hospital report, I showed her that Carl’s lungs had been badly burned, which was probably more important than the ratio. That made her feel better.

At the end, I told her I had one more question. “I’m trying to figure out what happened to Carl’s wife,” I said, explaining that Andrea had no memory of what happened after she was hit. “Yesterday, someone told me that he remembered a woman kneeling beside Carl, crying and pleading that he be saved. Do you remember anything like that?”

Everett paused, then nodded. “I didn’t until just now. When you’re doing CPR, you try to block everything else out. But now I remember someone screaming in my ear. She was saying over and over, ‘Carl, it’s Andrea. I love you, Carl, please don’t die.’ ”

That night, Andrea listened as I summarized my interviews. She was relieved to learn Carl received better treatment than we had ever imagined, and she was amazed to learn that—as far as I could tell—she probably never lost consciousness. When I finished, she hugged me and said, “Thanks for helping me fill in the gaps. It’s so important to me.”

I said, almost without thinking, “I wasn’t doing it just for you. I was also doing it for me.”

As it often does, the first sign that something was troubling Josh came at bedtime.

In early December, he asked us to leave on his overhead light. He already slept with a night light on, and we said no, concerned that it would keep him awake. But one night, when he was clearly scared and having trouble sleeping, Mary Jo switched on the overhead light. He went right to sleep.

Then the questions began—not about lightning, but about death. “Is it dark under the ground?” he asked one night at bedtime. “Do you get dirt in your eyes?” he asked another time.

At first we dismissed them as reflecting the normal worries of a 3-year-old. But his questions became more disturbing. One day, we were talking about going ice skating so he could use the new skates that Andrea had given him for Hanukah. “Do they have guns at the skating rink?” he said.

“No,” I said, taken aback. “Did someone tell you they did?”

“No,” he said. “Will they shoot you while you’re skating?”

Mary Jo and I still weren’t sure of the cause of his anxieties. It could have been the lightning incident, but there were other factors as well. His best friend’s grandfather had recently died, and they had talked about it. Perhaps that had been the catalyst?

We decided that the reasons didn’t matter, that we had to help bring out whatever was bothering him.

It didn’t take long.

Two days later, when I came home from work, Mary Jo told me about a dinner table conversation. Without warning, Josh had leaned over to her and said, “I’m dead.”

Instead of reassuring him, Mary Jo said, “How does it feel?”

“It feels yucky.”

Sensing that Josh wasn’t finished, Mary Jo waited.

Then Josh said, “I’m electricity.”

“You are?”

“Yes. Don’t touch me.”

Tentatively, Mary Jo reached out her finger and pointed it at him. “Zap, Zap.” Then, thinking that it might help Josh to “see” how lightning worked, she went into the playroom, got two plastic Lego figures and put them side by side on the kitchen table.

“This is Carl, and this is Andrea,” she said. “Watch.”

With her fork, she smacked the Carl figure, leaving the Andrea figure untouched.

Josh was fascinated. Taking his own fork, he began knocking “Carl” around the table. Watching him, Mary Jo felt a wave of emotion come over her. She realized that she had never talked with Josh about her own feelings about the accident or Carl’s death.

”You know, Josh, when I think about Carl’s death, I get really sad.”

“Why, Mommy?”

“It’s really sad when somebody you love isn’t there anymore. After the storm, when I found you and Daddy and Jilly in the park, I was so happy to see you. And you were really happy to see me because you didn’t know where I had been.”

“Where were you? Were you in the church?”

Mary Jo was surprised. He had never asked about her whereabouts before. “Yes, but I wasn’t with you. I was in the back and you were in the front. When I saw some people get hurt, I ran out of the church to get help.”

Josh seemed satisfied. He took his fork and kept hitting the Carl figure. Then, almost as if talking to himself, he said, “This is Carl. But it’s not the real Carl.”

By the next day, he seemed happier than we had seen him in several weeks. The conversation seemed to break the obsession. At the same time, it also made me realize something. My efforts to reassure Josh were good only to a point. No matter what I said, I couldn’t make death less mysterious or frightening. Nor could I protect him from it.

Even now, as I think about the past year, what always strikes me is how Josh’s questions remain just beneath the surface, ready to spring out at any time.

There was one such conversation last fall. We were in the car. A storm was coming and the clouds were getting dark.

“Is it going to rain, Daddy?”

“It looks like it will,” I said, anticipating the next question.

“Will there be lightning?”

“There might be.”

Josh said nothing for a while, then turned to me and said, “Daddy, do you remember when the lightning hit Carl?”

Yes, Josh, I remember.

© The Washington Post; printed here by permission

The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, May 22, 1988