Words and Photography by Anna-Rhesa Versola
Mark Stinson of Bear Creek senses when an electrical storm is close – the hairs on his arms rise to attention. “That’s the tingle you feel before the strike,” he says. “That means you’re in an area that is highly charged.”
Mark’s voice is low and steady as he describes a series of electrifying encounters with Mother Nature and how he lives with the physical and mental health effects of being struck on four separate occasions in Chatham County. Chris Hohmann, retired chief meteorologist at WTVD-11 in Durham, says rising heat and humidity in summer months can trigger a chain of atmospheric events that produce powerful thunderstorms. Chris says bolts can be hotter than the sun with some discharging more than 100 million volts and can cause surrounding air to expand so rapidly it sends out shock waves we hear as thunder; bolts can strike 10 miles away from a storm cell. “If you can hear thunder, you need to go inside,” Chris says. “People don’t really pay attention. Lightning is one of the bigger problems in the summertime, and it’s hard to get people to take action.”
Dr. Todd Granger, who practices internal medicine in Chapel Hill, says he remembers when Mark came into the emergency room of the old Chatham Hospital, formerly located in downtown Pittsboro. He recalls seeing one of Mark’s arms with petechiae – ruptured capillaries that can be seen with lightning exposure. “He was quite the talk of the practice,” Todd says. “The human body is a capacitor of sorts. Our bodies are made up of water and electrolytes, but I have no explanation for why he remains a capacitor.”
Mark says his body continues to carry an electrostatic charge, shocking family members or magnetizing tools he picks up. “I have zapped every member of my family you know, just touching ’em and this ain’t like walking across a rug and zap. Sometimes, I can pop a real pretty spark,” he says.
He has had numerous shocks apart from lightning, and all those events have a compounding effect on his physical and emotional well-being. Serious neurological issues can affect lightning and electrocution survivors, and Mark suffers headaches, anxiety, pain in his lower body and chronic fatigue.
“I’m only good three or four hours a day anymore,” Mark says. “My doctor told me, ‘I can’t fix your headaches; I can’t fix your fatigue.’ And, he said, ‘You’ve got degenerative disc disease in your back. … you’re a walking train wreck.’”
Mark, who receives Social Security disability checks, can’t afford to see a neurologist to find out the extent of damage to his brain and nervous system. He laments the loss of his short-term memory and says he learned only years later that the lightning rods at his home-based workshop were installed incorrectly. “I probably wouldn’t have got hurt if that building’s lightning rods had been right,” he says, “because it forced lightning to go through the quickest path to ground, which was through the wiring in the shop.”
Electricity runs through Mark’s family tree. His great-great-grandmother witnessed ball lightning. A great-aunt was electrified by ball lightning, he says. His paternal grandfather could hold a compass and the needle would spin, unable to find north. Lightning has struck his maternal grandmother’s house, and one set of grandparents were driving in Sanford through a summer storm when lightning rendered their car inoperable.
A licensed professional counselor prompted Mark to engage with people online to combat depression following the series of lightning strikes, a failed marriage and raising his three kids as a single parent. Mark formed a community email list that functions as a platform for people to express their opinions on local current topics. He says his homegrown chatlist has more than 3,000 members.
“It kind of gave me a voice. It was therapy,” Mark says. “I got where I just would write my thoughts down. You don’t feel like you’re so alone when you talk to people instead of at them.”
Nineteen years after the last lightning strike, Mark says, “I don’t want to be known as the lightning guy, but I guess that’s my 15 minutes of fame.” He reflects on the meaning of his life and is grateful to be around for his kids. “Every day is a gift. I could sit here and complain about how bad I feel. Or, I could drink a cup of coffee and wait till I feel good enough to do something,” Mark says. “The only thing that mattered to me was that [my] children have a chance to grow up and be good people and get out in the world and do something.”
THE COMPLETE KNOWN HISTORY OF STINSON'S STRIKES Aug. 21, 1985 Mark was 20 and at an upholstery workshop in Bonlee, washing his hands at a sink. “All I saw was a bright flash, and the next thing I know, I’m layin’ flat on the ground of the loading dock, and Daddy [was] standin’ over me. He said, ‘Are you all right?’ All I could hear was my ears ringin’. I said, ‘I think I am.’ I really was tinglin’ … and I was hot as a firecracker. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s whatcha get for not goin’ to church on Sunday.’ I’ll never forget that.” June 3, 1993 Mark was at his grandmother’s home in Bear Creek working under the cab of his pickup truck when a storm moved over the area. “I remember feelin’ like a bunch of ants was crawlin’ on me. … And the next thing I remember was feeling like somebody throwed me in a bathtub of scalding water. My vision went blurry, and when I could focus, I saw that my wrench had arc-welded to the oil pan of the truck. I remember not being able to move. I turned my head, and the ringin’ in my ears started to go away. And I heard a roar, and what the roar was, it was rainin’. … I didn’t know this [at the time], but my daddy and Ronald Gaddis were standin’ in the door of the shop, and they saw the black cloud back here, and … they saw the lightnin’ bolt hit, and Ronald joked, ‘I bet that lit him up.’ Daddy thought it was funny. Well, they didn’t realize I took a direct hit. … It blowed the soles off my shoes.’ … I was blood red, and the hairs on my arms was burned. [They] picked me up, put me in the van, and took me to Chatham Hospital. Todd Granger was the doctor who saw me then, and I still [had] over a 100-degree fever.” June 3, 2000 Mark and his kids were talking with a visitor in their kitchen when they heard storm warnings. “I ran out to the shop and put my hand on the breaker to flip the power, and it hit that steel pole on the front corner of the building and took out the outside light. It hit me, knocked me flat on the floor and shorted out several lights in the shop. And, same thing, I felt like I’d been dumped in hot scalding water. And I was smoked again. I was red. … It burnt spots in the wall.” Aug. 16, 2002 Mark was in his workshop during an electrical storm when the phone rang. He picked it up and was thrown across the room. “It was more of an indirect hit because it hit the radio antenna. It went through the wiring and hit me in the left arm; it burned the hair off my arm.”