Rare storm at California beach hard to see coming

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 28, 2014 at 8:45 pm •  Published: July 28, 2014
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 Nick Fagnano, 21, who was scheduled to attend the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy in the fall as a transfer student from a nearby community college. 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.

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