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Appalachian Trail lightning strike survivor needs your help finding closure

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Author: S. Shaw
Date: 01.04.16

UPDATED: 7:45 1.4.2016 with additional and clarifying information.

On the afternoon of June 18, 2015 two sisters were backpacking together along the Appalachian Trail near Washington Monument State Park in rural Maryland when the weather began to take a turn for the worse. One hour later a single bolt of lighting would forever change their lives.

Sisters Mollyann Hart and Lauren Bognovitz had spent the weeks prior to June 18th getting ready for their first-ever backpacking trip together. Preparation was standard: knocking off day-hikes, testing out gear, learning their limits; and the pair could not have been more excited to hit the trail. Having grown up in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail seemed like a natural choice for their first serious trip, a 3-4 day backpacking adventure.

The two decided to tackle the section between Pen Mar, Pennsylvania and Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. With their destination set and a thirst for adventure ready to be quenched, Mollyann and Lauren hit the trail.  A quick review of the weather conditions revealed a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms for the duration of the trip; equipped with rain gear and weather apps on their phones if Mother Nature decided to not play nice, the sisters determined the weather was not enough to deter.

Day One of the trip went about as well as could be hoped for as they took in the breathtaking scenery with each step of the white-blazed trail. “It was a blast… It was our first time on a multi-day trip. The first 4 hours were hard as heck, because we were practically rock-climbing. And being a first timer, I way overpacked. I probably had enough food to last a week and a half at least.”  Said Mollyann.  Overpacked perhaps but filled with exuberance, in one short day she’d come to appreciate the AT as more than just a 2,190 mile dirt path and instead as a community stretching from Georgia to Maine. “Meeting all these wonderful people who are so pure and are all fearlessly hiking their own hikes was so liberating and inspiring… I felt honored to finally experience it.”

At sunset they settled down, equal parts tired and exhilarated. After a quick dinner and a few bites of banana bread given to them by trail angels at the Cowall shelter, the two crawled into their tent and chatted about the amazing scenery and just how spectacular it was to be amongst nature. That evening the skies opened up and rhythmic rain hammered their tent walls throughout the night, however, by morning the sisters awoke to the pleasant tune of birds chirping. With the rain stopped, skies looking exactly the same as the previous day, and their attempt to check the weather apps foiled by lack of cell service, the pair pressed on.

The morning of Day Two continued much the same as the previous the day, with the duo traveling the well-beaten path through the beautiful mixed-hardwood forest, bursting with deer, squirrels, chipmunks and set to the tunes of songbirds. As the miles passed and with the sun rising high overhead, rain again started to fall.  It was not a downpour like the previous night, more “steady rain…a little bit more than a drizzle” and with no lightning or thunder in sight or sound they were not particularly worried, thinking it just a little rain. Having just sloshed through South Mountain and Greenbrier State Parks they decided to take a lunch break at the old Washington Monument to get out of the weather.

View from an overlook in South Mountain State Park the day of the accident.

View from an overlook in South Mountain State Park the day of the accident.

Right when they got inside it started to pour again, so the pair decided to hole up for a bit and wait it out. The old Washington Monument is normally a popular spot for hikers to climb to the top and take in the view, but today it was a much-needed shelter from the elements (one other hiker would also take shelter inside the monument). The perceived safety of the 34-foot high monument was short-lived; the weather took a serious turn for the worse and just as they started to realize they were in a very bad situation a thunderous boom rattled the walls and shook the ground of the stone tower.  “I turned to my sister and said well! That was terrifying!” Mollyann recalls.  Then before she could utter another word… A flash and a ferocious bolt of lightning scored a direct hit on the tower.  The force of the violent blast threw them like ragdolls out of the doorway and onto the steps outside.  “I landed head-first on the stone steps.”  The next roughly half an hour was nothing short of complete chaos with Mollyann’s life hanging in the balance.

The blast, electrical shock and crushing blow to the head had left Mollyann unconscious.  Lauren, however, did not lose consciousness - instead finding herself in something of a daze. Upon gathering herself, she realized Mollyann had been badly hurt. The massive gash in Mollyann’s forehead was gushing blood like a fountain, and to her horror she was not breathing. “My sister had to give me CPR… I was blue,” recalled Mollyann succinctly. With Lauren at her sister's now breathing but still unconscious side the shelter’s other hiker, who had not been badly injured, took off down the trail to get help. The second soon-to-be Good Samaritan had by now made his way up trail and upon seeing the terrified look on Lauren's face dropped his pack and took off sprinting down the trail--all with no words exchanged.  It was around this time that Mollyann regained consciousness: “I don't remember the accident, I remember waking up and having no idea where I was or who I was, my sister kept telling me that I had fell, but I didn't understand…” All she knew was “everything hurt.”  

Lauren stayed by her sister’s side waiting for help to arrive.  The wet stone steps washed red with blood when rescuers arrived via four-wheeler to take her off the mountain and into a waiting ambulance. The entire time Lauren tried to keep her sister calm but the confused Mollyann had heard her “whisper to the [Rangers/paramedics] that [she had been] hit by lightning.” Mollyann remembers, “it was then that I started freaking out. I touched my head and I could feel bone, I was certain I was going to die…” As the rescuers loaded Mollyann onto the ATV to get her off the mountain, “I kept telling the woman paramedic that she needed to call ahead and get the CT scan ready, I couldn't answer any questions about where I was but I was demanding a head-CT as if I had any clue what I was talking about.”  

An excerpt from the journal of a thru hiker who was passing through at the time provides more perspective on the severity of the storm:

“Thursday, June 18, I was in George Washington State Park in rural Maryland, when in the late afternoon a crazy thunder and lightning storm broke open in full fury. I had nowhere to run and hide. There was no time separation between the flashes and the bangs - if you know what I mean. And I was hiking in the water up past my ankles. All I could do was keep walking. Then I heard sirens, and they kept getting closer and closer. Finally the emergency vehicle speeds past me (I'm on the road/trail leading to the summit now). when I get to the top I found out that the lightning had struck the monument, blowing one 24 year old girl out of the structure (not hitting her directly) and down the front steps onto the stone front entry area. She was bleeding from a serious head injury” ~ ThruHiker Warren “Bull” Burbury’s Trail Journal

 

Mollyann in the hospital.

Mollyann in the hospital.

Mollyann was taken by ambulance to the Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown. “The next couple days were rough and filled with lots of doctors, lots of tests.” Mollyann remembers.  She would learn that she was not directly struck by lightning but instead by a side flash strike. A side flash strike occurs when a lightning bolt strikes a taller object and portion of the current jumps from the taller object to the victim. The National Weather Service says “in essence, the person acts as a ‘short circuit’ for some of the energy in the lightning discharge.”  In this case the bolt struck the monument and Mollyann was the short circuit. The side flash strike left her with a laundry list of injuries: a traumatic concussion, a damaged optic nerve, intracranial hypertension, and permanently damaged vision. “Electricity definitely conducted in my head, because it burned a hole in my retina in my right eye - as a result I won't be able to see much of anything out of it anymore… I can see fragments of the world but not all… I have no peripheral vision in that eye at all and am missing some of the peripheral vision in my left.”

Mollyann’s life was permanently changed by the accident. “The next couple of months were pretty tough, I stayed in bed and slept for about 3 months straight.” More than 6 months after the tragedy the effects are still being felt “obviously, I had a really bad concussion, which is still healing, but I'm able to participate in the real world now.” Surviving such an ordeal has left more than just physical scars on Mollyann, it’s left unpaid emotional debts. “There were a lot of people involved in saving my life… I want to thank them all… My sister obviously first and foremost, she breathed the life back into me when the lightning had knocked it out.” The hiker who was in shelter with them when the accident happened (and who ran for help) came and visited her in the hospital and they are now friends.  But one question mark remains for Mollyann...the mystery hiker who also ran for help.

“Knowing that some stranger literally dropped his pack to run down the mountain to find help without even missing a beat warms my heart… Because when my sister saw him, he gave her some hope to hold onto, knowing that someone was coming to help and that my survival wasn't going to depend completely on her… I want to give him a big hug.”

Mollyann has been searching for the mystery Good Samaritan, but so far to no avail.  Please share this article in the hopes of tracking him down and giving Mollyann the chance to finally thank her trail angel.

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