TWO YOUNG women died when they were struck by lightning as they sheltered under a tree during a sudden and violent thunderstorm.
They were found by a cavalry officer exercising his horse at Hyde Park in central London yesterday morning. They are thought to have died the previous evening.
The discovery of the bodies led, at first, to a murder hunt with teams of detectives from Scotland Yard arriving at the Rose Garden, near Serpentine Road, less than 200 yards away from rush-hour traffic. However, a pathologist who examined the victims concluded they had been killed by lightning.
The two women, who were of South-east Asian origin, were found lying close together and fully clothed. One, who was lying on her back, had most of her hair burnt away. Neither of the women is thought to have had any visible injuries apart from burn marks. Initial tests are said to have indicated they were holding hands when the lightning struck.
A senior police source said the women were probably killed at about 6pm on Wednesday. "It appears that lightning has struck the tree and shot down the trunk. One of the women had her back to the tree trunk and the lightning has gone down her back, ripped open her shirt and come out through her feet.
"They were, we think, seeking shelter from the storm when this happened."
The thunderstorm came during a night of severe weather across southern Britain. At Pagham, near Bognor Regis in West Sussex, more than 50 buildings were damaged and boats were lifted from their moorings when a mini-tornado swept through the area in the early hours. A garage was destroyed, and the resulting debris smashed through double-glazing at a nearby house, a Sussex Police spokesman said.
Weather experts described the deaths of the two women in Hyde Park as extraordinary. The chances of being struck by lightning are about one in three million, and there are no statistics for a double strike. In an average year in Britain, 24 people are struck by lightning and five are killed. Worldwide, about a thousand people are killed by lightning each year.
A small thunderstorm carries the power of about 10 Hiroshima bombs and one lightning bolt can carry up to a million volts of electricity travelling at the speed of light.
Although lightning strikes are rare, tall buildings are at much greater risk of being hit. The Empire State Building in New York is hit, on average, 20 times a year.
The worst incident on record happened in 1963, when lightning struck a Pan Am Boeing 707 over Maryland in the United States, igniting a fuel tank. A total of 81 people were killed.
The most bizarre statistic involves a man from California who was struck seven times during his life. He died in 1983, from natural causes.
To minimise the risk of being struck by lightning, experts advise people to stay away from metal objects - either indoors or outdoors - such as golf clubs and bicycles. Swimming is also hazardous as lightning can be conducted through water.
If caught outside in a severe storm, people are advised to crouch as low as possible, with feet together and hands on knees. They should avoid sheltering near tall objects. Lying down can be dangerous because lightning striking the ground can send a surge of voltage across the wet surface.
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