A lightning strike at Venice Beach in Los Angeles killed a swimmer and injured 13 people, making families scramble out of the water in scenes witnesses said was “like the film Jaws”.
Beachgoers were sent flying to the ground and homes were shaken when the four powerful lightning bolts hit with no warning as thousands relaxed in the sun on Sunday afternoon.
Dozens of Los Angeles County lifeguards rushed to help the injured, including a 55-year-old surfer who is in critical condition. Among the others taken to hospital was a 15-year-old boy.
The name of the swimmer, 20, has not been released, and the cause of death has not yet been revealed.
Weathermen said the likelihood of being hit by a lightning strike in Southern California was the lowest in America – a one in 7.5 million chance.
Witnesses told US media the lightning bolts felt like a “sonic boom”. They said they had no chance to run because the storm arrived so suddenly – the sky was still mostly blue when the lightning hit.
Joe Doro said: “It was the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard. It was like a scene out of Jaws, all the mothers were going in to grab their kids and drag them out of the water.”
Stuart Acher said he believed he had been struck by lightning while playing volleyball on the beach. He said: “We went about our game and then all of a sudden, there was a big flash of light and a boom, and it felt like someone punched me in the back of my head.
“It went down my whole side of my right body, and my calves sort of locked up, and I fell over. And I looked up and everybody else was falling over.”
The Los Angeles City Fire Department said that it sent 47 firefighters, eight ambulances and five fire engines after the first emergency call came in.
Lifeguards were the first on the scene. They put victims on stretchers and tried to resuscitate those who had been knocked unconscious.
Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the lightning was caused by a high pressure system pulling a mass of hot, moist air from Mexico and the Gulf of California towards Los Angeles.
He said normally such air masses do not make it as far West as the city as they expire in the desert.
Mr Patzert said: “This was a sneak attack that took everybody by surprise. Coastal Southern California is virtually lightning-proof. Because it’s so unusual, people are not sensitised to the dangers.”