STRANGE GH: Lighting strikes: the cause of many OC fatalities

Dec 5, 2011


Believe it or not, several residents have been struck by lightning during our county’s history, but not all have resulted in fatalities.

Here’s just a sampling of those whose luck ran out during historic area lightning storms:

On the evening of Aug. 7, 1861, the house of Jan Van Dyk, located in southern Ottawa County, was struck by lightning, causing two fatalities. Jan was knocked senseless, his wife Elizabeth injured, and their two youngest daughters perished instantly.

On June 15, 1868, the Grand Haven home of Alexander VanZantwork was struck by lightning, killing him and a boy inside of the residence.

On July 9, 1873, a lightning bolt struck Emlaw’s sawmill, killing 15-year-old employee Peter DeGeus. About five years later, 18-year-old Edward Conner perished after he was struck by lightning on April 6, 1878, at his family’s Georgetown Township farm.

The first lighting strike causing a fatality documented in detail was that of a 25-year-old Grand Haven man. The incident was reported in the Grand Haven Tribune.

On Aug. 3, 1892, during a thunderstorm, Fred Farr and his younger brother were inside their farmhouse when a bolt of lightning struck a fence on their property. The boys, sons of William Farr, were in a room 12 feet square, when a second bolt struck a tree, traveled through the ground and under the door into the home, tearing up the mopboard and damaging a stove before striking Fred Farr in the chest.

The younger boy was knocked from his chair to the floor, but was not seriously hurt.

Neighbors were summoned for help, and Fred’s mother tended to him, saying her son survived for “five or ten minutes” after the incident. Fred Farr’s father, who was in downtown Grand Haven picking up a load of lumber, rushed home upon hearing the tragic news from a neighbor.

Dr. Wyllis Walkey, who arrived at the scene and attempted life-saving methods to no avail, told a Tribune reporter “the young man was dead and bore all evidence of having been killed instantly.”

Investigators were surprised to see there was little burn evidence or damage to the structure, which was usually visual when there was a lightning strike. Fred Farr had a red mark on his chest where the electricity entered his body.

Another fatality occurred on June 10, 1900, when lightning struck a farmhouse 2 miles west of Jenison. The shock killed the owner, 26-year-old George B. Van Wagoner. A remarkable feature of the fatality was that his two-month-old baby — who he was holding on his knee at the time — was not injured at all.

A similar situation involving an infant occurred on Aug. 3, 1916, in Nunica when the farmhouse of Asa Cooper was hit by a lightning bolt, striking a crib inside the home. A baby in the crib was badly burned from the strike; fortunately, the child recovered.

Another lightning fatality occurred on Aug. 25, 1936, when Rhine Roon — a 36-year-old farmer residing in Allendale Township — was struck by a bolt, killing him instantly. Rhine’s brother told authorities that lightning had struck the silo on their farm, and ran down the structure and into the ground, before darting up and hitting his sibling in the head.

It’s comforting to keep in mind that Ottawa County is no less safe regarding lightning strikes than other Michigan counties. But the handful of incidents certainly are — for lack of a better word — shocking.


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