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1 killed, 9 hurt in Pocono lightning strike

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Aug. 05, 2012

One race fan was killed and nine others injured by at least two lightning strikes following the conclusion of Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway, track officials confirmed.

The strikes took place during a severe thunderstorm which had enveloped the track shortly before the race was officially halted at 4:55 p.m. Eastern. The strikes happened in the parking lot behind the main grandstands and near the Gate 3 area of the track.

A severe thunderstorm warning – cautioning against dangerous winds and large hail, along with cloud-to-ground lightning – was issued for the track by the National Weather Service at 4:12 p.m., while the race remained under green-flag conditions.

Fans in the stands were not notified through the public address system to seek shelter until the race had concluded and no mandatory evacuation of the grandstands were ordered, track public relations director Bob Pleban said.

Pleban said the track does have an emergency evacuation plan but said it would not be made available until Monday. He would not say whether it was in place at the time of the incident.

A message posted on the track’s Twitter feed at 4:21 p.m. advised fans of the storm warning.

Before the race was halted, there were numerous reports of lightning in the area on team radios, from fan posts on Twitter and by reporters on the Motor Racing Network broadcast.

Five fans were immediately transported to three different local hospitals and another five were treated on site at the speedway. Those five also ended up being transported to local hospitals for further evaluation, track officials said.

None of the fans’ names have been released.

Shortly before 8 p.m. Eastern, track president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky announced one of the two fans in critical condition had died at Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg.

“A member of our raceway family here, a fan, has passed away,” Igdalsky said. “On behalf of myself, my entire family and everybody here, really heart-felt thoughts ….” His voice trailed off.

“We are deeply saddened that a fan has died and others were injured by lightning strikes following today’s race at Pocono,” NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with them as well as all those affected by this unfortunate accident.”

In NASCAR, tracks are responsible for the facility and the grounds while the sanctioning body oversees all matters involving competition.

That’s not the case in all professional leagues, however.

In the NFL, game officials make the call on when play is stopped due to weather and an announcement is made to the crowd simultaneously with the stoppage of play.

The start of the race was delayed approximately one hour and 40 minutes by heavy rain from a storm and the track was under a severe thunderstorm watch much of Sunday afternoon.

Only 98 of 160 scheduled laps were completed. Most competitors’ concern on Sunday was getting to Lap 80 – the halfway point – which would make the race official.

Race winner Jeff Gordon, who earned his sixth career victory at Pocono, said he believed he heard the worst lightning strike.

“I’m pretty sure I know which one it was,” Gordon said about the lightning strike. “We were walking down pit road, the umbrellas weren’t doing any good, there was a huge, huge crack from lightning. You could tell it was very close.

“That’s the thing that’s going to take away from the victory, is the fact that somebody was affected by that.”

The rain and wind were so strong at times, visibility was reduced to a few feet. There were numerous reports of traffic accidents in the area following the race.

Monroe County Coroner Bob Allen told reporters Sunday night the deceased was a 41-year-old male who was apparently struck by lightning at the parking area by Gate No. 3 of the track.

Allen said the deceased was from Pennsylvania but declined to give out further information until all of the immediate family had been notified.

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