Two Alexandria buildings were struck by lightning last week as a series of violent thunderstorms moved through the area Saturday evening. Although nobody was hurt during the storm, a West End condominium was evacuated and several people were treated for smoke inhalation. The unusually hot and humid weather Saturday created perfect conditions for the kind of violent thunderstorms that rolled through the Washington region last weekend, packing 85 mile-an-hour winds and dumping more than an inch of rain in some parts of Alexandria.
"As the cold front moved across the state, it triggered several severe thunderstorms," said Rick Winther, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "It was what meteorologists call a severe weather event."
The severity was felt most acutely at Alexandria Knolls, a West End condominium that was struck by lightning shortly after 7:30 p.m. Soon afterward, the building filled with smoke as first responders arrived on the scene and orchestrated an evacuation during the storm. Three condominiums were later condemned by code-enforcement officials. Firefighters battled a three-alarm fire on the 18th floor as public-safety officials prepared several city buses to shelter the evacuated residents. Six firefighters and three residents were later treated for smoke inhalation.
"There was a great sense of coordination between the city fire, police and code enforcement officials," said Steven Mason, spokesman for the city manager. "And the Red Cross was also on the scene helping the city’s efforts."
ABOUT AN HOUR later, firefighters responded to another lightning strike, this time at the Homestead Suites near the intersection of Bluestone Road and Eisenhower Avenue. Although nobody was hurt at the hotel, the elevator shaft was struck by a bolt of lightning — initiating a fire that was quickly extinguished by the Alexandria Fire Department. Public-safety officials say that firefighters respond to lightning strikes just like any other call for service.
"We have a pre-determined quantity of fire apparatus that we dispatch, regardless of it’s a lightning strike or any other kind of emergency," said Jane Malik, public information officer for the department.
Officials at the National Weather Service call lightning the "underrated killer," estimating that the weather phenomena has killed an average of 62 people a year. The commonwealth of Virginia averages 8.6 flashes per square mile every year, according to scientists who collect data on lightning. John Jensenius, a warning-coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said that taller buildings such as the Alexandria Knolls are particularly susceptible to being hit by lightning because they are so tall. Yet he was quick to add that everyone should keep safety in mind during a thunderstorm.
"Any time you are outside during a thunderstorm, you are in danger of being struck by lightning," said Jensenius. "If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance."