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Lightning strike pays powerful visit to church.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Some days it just pays to stay indoors, and for Peter Desser, Thursday was one of those days.

Desser, owner of alarm installation company Apex Systems, was working inside a west Eugene church Thursday when a powerful lightning strike hit a tree outside, shot down its side and blasted apart a rock masonry sign. A rock from the sign torpedoed into his truck with such force it not only went through the windshield, it buried itself deep in the dashboard inside.

"It was like a bomb hit the place," Desser said. The rock, he said, was "about the size of three fists."

The strike was so powerful it sent bowling-ball-size rocks flying half a football field's length, with one hitting a second car at the far end of the large church parking lot. Desser said a woman was jogging past the sign on West 18th Avenue within feet of the the blast but appeared to escape without injury.

"I'm just thanking God that girl was OK," he said. "She just covered her head and kept on running. I think she went home and had a heart attack."

The lightning struck shortly after 2 p.m. and came to earth outside the Eugene Friends Church at 3495 W. 18th Ave. It first hit a Douglas fir tree more than 100 feet tall, spiraling down its trunk and ripping off a strip of bark about 6 inches wide.

It jumped from the tree to the sign, where it blasted the top off a masonry pier made of cemented rocks that was about 2 feet square at its base and 5 feet tall. It then went across some metal cladding on top of the wood sign attached to the pier and down a pipe to a smaller rock pier, hitting it like dynamite.

"It just blew the whole thing to smithereens," said church member Gene Brown.

The lightning pulse also traveled across the street, where it ran up a concrete power line support, blew out a streetlight and knocked a football-size chunk of concrete out of the support.

The force of the blast also blew the concrete lid off a small utility vault in the sidewalk below the power line as well as an above-ground metal phone line vault next to it.

Some phones and a traffic light in the area were knocked out of service.

Eugene Water & Electric Board spokesman John Mitchell said a crew went out and made sure the concrete support, which holds up three major power lines, was stable. They plan to return today to repair it.

The lightning was part of a fast-moving squall line typical of unsettled spring weather, said National Weather Service forecaster Tiffani Brown. The line moved on up the Willamette Valley, spawning a funnel cloud that was spotted between Corvallis and Philomath that never touched down.

The strike also appears to be responsible for a brief loss of power at the University of Oregon about four miles away. UO facilities director George Hecht said that caused emergency generators to kick in all across campus.

They shut down when power came back a few moments later, but the power "bump" caused a small vacuum pump in a laboratory in the Vulcanology building to overheat, melting some insulation around it. That filled the lab with smoke, setting off alarms in the building and prompting an evacuation, but the only damage was to the pump.

Back at the church, members were busy cleaning up rocks and limbs and counting their blessings. The congregation has had bad luck with trees: In the big Feb. 9, 2002, windstorm that hit Eugene, another huge fir tree fell on the building and caused extensive damage.

In fact, the church hasn't quite finished the construction project that came as a result of that hit. Jerine Timpe, the church secretary, was in the building then and was there again Thursday thinking history was repeating itself.

"It was a huge, huge explosion," she said. "I really was just waiting for a tree to hit the church."

Desser was counting his blessings too and decided to quit while he was ahead.

"I'm cancelling the rest of my day," he said.

CAPTION(S):

Gene Brown, a Eugene Friends Church member, stands near the church sign's shattered column. Paul Carter / The Register-Guard Peter Desser looks at the hole a lightning-propelled rock made in the windshield of his van on Thursday at Eugene Friends Church.
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Title Annotation:Weather; The blast zaps a tree, then zonks a sign's stone base to send rocks flying
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 31, 2006
Words:742
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