Lightning strike alters teen’s life in a flash

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It was summer 1996: A typhoon was approaching Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, and a thunderstorm advisory was in effect.

Meanwhile, a high school soccer game started. Mitsutoshi Kitamura, who had joined the game from Kochi Prefecture, was out on the field when the accident occurred — he was hit by lightning.

In this fraction of a second, Kitamura’s life changed.

He had no pulse and his breathing stopped. For 30 minutes he was in cardiac arrest. After multiple electro-cardio resuscitations, his heart started beating again but he remained unconscious.

“The doctor had warned us to be prepared for death,” Mizuho Kitamura, Mitsutoshi’s mother, said. “We were even given an explanation on brain death.”

But little by little, Kitamura came out of his coma. After two months, he had fully regained consciousness. But the accident left him severely disabled.

He lost most of his vision — he can only tell the difference between light and dark. He also has a speech impediment and suffers paralysis in his arms and legs, requiring a wheelchair to move around.

For more than 18 months, Kitamura’s mom said she focused on his rehabilitation.

But one day, Kitamura told his teacher that what happened to him was the teacher’s fault, and pleaded to have his old body back. That was when his mother decided to sue.

“I knew then that as a parent, it was up to me to find evidence that the school neglected its duty to protect its students,” she said.

Mizuho and her husband demanded around 300 million yen from the school, the Takatsuki Municipal Government and related associations on grounds that the school should have foreseen the threat of lightning and stopped the soccer game.

The Kochi District Court in 2003 and the Takamatsu High Court in October rejected the lawsuit.

The courts ruled that “it would have been difficult for officials to foresee lightning” and therefore the school did not violate its obligation to ensure the safety of its students.

“But this is not an issue that should be dismissed just because the teachers didn’t know” that lightning might strike, the mother said.

On Nov. 10, the parents appealed to the Supreme Court.

According to data collected by the National Police Agency, there were 84 lightning accidents in 2002, killing one and injuring 16. In 2001, there were 64, including four fatalities and 13 people injured.

“The relatively low number of cases is probably one of the reasons why the public does not have much awareness of lightning,” reckoned Zenichiro Kawasaki, a professor of communications engineering at Osaka University.

“People learn about the danger of lightning and how to prevent getting struck, but they forget about it after a while.”

Kawasaki noted that in Japan, especially in urban areas, people can easily run into a building for protection.

“But it is difficult to protect yourself 100 percent,” Kawasaki said. “The only way to do that is to live in a box for the rest of your life. So the answer is education, for both children and adults.”

The 25-year veteran on lightning figured: “Hearing thunder means that you are standing under a thundercloud. And while you are standing under the cloud, you are always in danger of being struck” by lightning.

Kawasaki, who is also chairman of the Society of Atmospheric Electricity of Japan, said that if people hear thunder, they should seek cover in a building or car.

When lightning strikes, the electric current reaches an average of 30,000 to 40,000 amps, Kawasaki said, adding that this is equivalent to the electricity used in a couple of thousand of households at once.

“People are usually hit on the head by lightning,” said Nobuichiro Kitagawa, a pioneering researcher of lightning and its effects on the body. “The electric current destroys the brain and stops the heart in a hundred-thousandth of a second.”

The bolt that hit Kitamura was said to have struck a metal lucky charm he was wearing around his neck. But that is a misunderstanding, according to Kitagawa.

“When the electric current flows through the body and the metal accessory, it gives off sparks, leaving that area of the skin badly burned,” Kitagawa said.

Kitagawa, a 30-year veteran in his field, said an average 80 percent of people who are struck by lightning die.

Kitamura, now 24, is attending a school for the blind and learning to use a computer. His mother said he hopes to attend college, like his friends did.

“Together with my son, I will continue with this lawsuit,” she said. “This issue is not just about my son, it is about safety at schools and teaching the value of life. And I believe this action will help prevent accidents in the future.”