Common sense key to safety

The news item came across last week as inconspicuous, but perhaps it shouldn't have.

CARBONDALE – A lightning strike killed a high school runner as he left a pole vault pit shortly before a track meet, the county coroner said.

"It came out of nowhere," said Scott Hankey, Carbondale Community High School's baseball coach, whose team was preparing for a game nearby. "There was a very, very light rain. There wasn't anything in the way of dark clouds. It didn't look anything like a thunderstorm."

Corey Williams, 18, was returning to the main track area from the pole vault pit about 4 p.m. when the lightning bolt hit him. Coaches and others tried to revive him, but he was declared dead by the time he reached a hospital.

Thomas Kupferer, Jackson County's coroner, confirmed that lightning killed the teenager.

More than 200 people attended a candlelight vigil for Williams on Thursday night, and classes at the school were canceled Friday to give the students time to grieve.

It is springtime in Illinois, and unfortunately for high school athletes, officials and fans, it is a dangerous time.

Storms explode across the Midwest, leaving those unaware in the path of potential disaster. It needn't be anything nearly as severe as a tornado. Too often, thunderstorms bearing lightning have turned prep athletics into a time of mourning.

In the case of Carbondale's Corey Williams, perhaps little could be done. Maybe, maybe not. But the most diligent of high school administrators know that being aware of the weather surroundings at this time of the year isn't just important, it's critical.

"We try to take necessary precautions in advance and talk to our coaches about making sure that it's safety first," Champaign Central athletic director John Woods said, "because accidents last."

Woods couldn't recall a death from a lightning strike in this area and should be at least partly attributable to fine work from ADs like Woods, who go to great lengths to make sure their athletes are safe. Woods' plans, no doubt, are mirrored by many area officials.

"Our coaches know if there's thunder or lightning, you've got to take shelter for 30 minutes," Woods said. "If they see lightning or hear thunder, they take shelter. And that means they cannot return to the practice field or the playing field until 30 minutes following the last sighting or last earshot of thunder."

Instances such as these pop up regularly; they seemed prevalent last August and September during football season. But spring offers even more treacherous weather, and it doesn't help that athletes are holding metal baseball bats or long pole vault poles or standing in wide-open spaces.

That was the case for an athlete I covered about 15 years ago. A high school freshman – an outstanding athlete who was bound for stardom in multiple sports – was playing left field for his high school baseball team. A passing storm threw a lightning bolt that struck him, and he was killed instantly. While I wasn't on site, the firsthand accounts of the tragedy sent shivers through my spine. It was a tragedy of the worst dimension, a young teenager killed for no explainable reason and – who knows? – it might have been avoidable.

Once the competition starts, the decision to take the teams off the field belongs in the hands of the officials/umpires. They are in consultation with the host school's representatives, who should be monitoring all weather developments.

That's the way it should work. Here's hoping that this spring – and in all springs to come – officials pay heed to the warning signs and don't let competition get in the way of common sense.

One tragedy is too many.

Tony Bleill is a News-Gazette staff writer. You can reach him at 217-351-5605 or via e-mail at tbleill@news-gazette.com.

Sections (3):Baseball, Prep Sports, Sports
Categories (3):Prep Sports, Baseball, Sports

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