LOS ANGELES — A thunderstorm formed so rapidly over a Southern California beach that experts said Monday it was impossible for anyone to predict a lightning strike would turn a day of carefree fun into one of terror.
The phenomenon so rare that lifeguards lack an emergency warning system struck Sunday afternoon at Los Angeles’ popular Venice Beach, killing a 21-year-old man and injuring a dozen others.
Along the beach, famous internationally for its jugglers, skaters, medical marijuana dealers and boardwalk preachers and hucksters, panic instantly set in.
“All of a sudden, there was a huge explosion and everyone dropped to the ground. I thought, `Is there a bomb? Are there fireworks?’ The sky got black and then it started downpouring,” said Sam Solomon, a 24-year-old outdoor marketer from Los Angeles.
Although a commonplace in many other parts of the country, lightning rarely ever strikes the sand along the beaches of the Western U.S., climatologist Bill Patzert said. As a result, Southern Californians were completely unprepared.
“In Florida, under similar conditions, they might have asked people to clear the beaches. But not here,” said Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Although lightning had struck a man on a golf course on nearby Santa Catalina Island earlier in the day, Patzert said the storm that materialized over the beach did so rapidly and was so isolated that he couldn’t say anyone was to blame for not predicting it.
“It’s hard to find fault. I’d say impossible, actually,” he said. “It was a small, isolated system, and it just hit. It’s not as if it moved up the coast and kept repeating itself. It was tragic, but it was a one-shot deal.”
Killed was 21-year-old Nick Fagnano, who was scheduled to enroll in the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy in the fall as a transfer student from Santa Barbara. His mother, Mary, told the Whittier Daily News that her only son had been sitting on the beach with friends when he decided to go into the water to rinse off sand just as the lightning hit.
Nine other people were taken to hospitals and three more were treated at the scene. Of the nine hospitalized, one was listed in critical condition. On Catalina Island, the picturesque Channel Island 26 miles west of Los Angeles, the man struck on a golf course was listed in stable condition.
Before the lightning hit, the National Weather Service issued a statement noting the chance of thunderstorms off the Southern California coast Sunday. But lightning from such storms usually stays out over the ocean and doesn’t make it to shore, said the agency’s Bonnie Bartling.
Southern California’s lifeguards receive the alerts and going forward will be looking at them more closely, said Capt. Kyle Daniels, although he stopped short of saying they’d broadcast storm alerts like they do shark alerts.
“The first knowledge they had was when the lightning hit,” Capt. Danny Douglas said of his lifeguard crew. In his 30 years as a lifeguard, he had never seen lightning strike a Southern California beach – he’d rarely even seen it rain during the summer.
Other authorities were skeptical of what good broadcasting alerts would do.
“Southern California surfers are Southern California surfers,” said Capt. Brian Jordan of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “Nothing will drive them out of the water.”
The storm came out of a front of warm, subtropical air from Mexico that usually doesn’t make it as far west as California. When it did, that front collided with the cooler marine layer that normally envelopes Southern California’s beaches during much of the year, keeping them cloudy and cool, even during the afternoon.
The result was a ferocious lightning strike and thunderclap that set off car alarms, showered the local lifeguard station with sparks and shook the building.
In more thunderstorm-prone parts of the country, golf tournaments and baseball games have sometimes been delayed when thunderstorms are seen approaching. But, Patzert noted, that never happens in California because lightning strikes don’t often happen except in the mountains and deserts.
“The probability of getting hit by lightning in California is one in seven to 10 million, depending on where you live,” Patzert said. “In Florida, the lightning capital of the country, it’s one in a million.”
As people returned by the thousands to Venice Beach on Monday afternoon, some like Laurent Mahuegt of France were counting on those odds holding.
He, his wife and three children had left the beach Sunday just 30 minutes before the storm struck, but they were quickly back in the water.
“If I see dark clouds, I’ll leave,” he said.