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Friend recounts beach day that ended in lightning strike death

Phyllis Kalinowski, 51, of Brandon was killed by a lightning strike at Belleair Beach on Tuesday.

Phyllis Kalinowski, 51, of Brandon was killed by a lightning strike at Belleair Beach on Tuesday.

BRANDON — When Dawn Ryskoski and Phyllis Kalinowski went to the beach Tuesday, Ryskoski thought it would be like any other they spent together — quality time with a dear friend.

But they became separated in a fierce afternoon storm. When the lashing rain and booming thunder finally subsided, Ryskoski discovered her friend isolated and unresponsive on the sand. Kalinowski, 51, apparently had been killed by lightning.

"It is still unreal to me that I went to the beach and did not leave with my friend," Ryskoski said Wednesday.

The women, both from Brandon, had gone to Belleair Beach in Pinellas County. They walked along the sand, and Kalinowski found a shell neither had often seen before. She gave it to Ryskoski, who nicknamed it "the Phyllis shell."

"She was even touched by that, something small," said Ryskoski, 45.

They went to refill the parking meter. Kalinowski decided to go back to her towel while Ryskoski went for a walk down the beach.

Ryskoski was walking in the surf when she saw clouds roll in. She didn't see lightning at first. But the storm grew quickly, and the first strikes were so close she felt like she needed to duck.

Heading for sand away from the tide, she followed a path near buildings to get back.

"When I got closer, I started calling her name," Ryskoski said. Rain beat down onto her face. "It was hard to see anything."

She couldn't find Kalinowski near their spot. She looked for her at the car, then around condominium buildings, thinking her friend might have sought shelter. Ryskoski checked the bathroom, then waited out the worst of the storm in a picnic area.

In the drizzle, she walked back to the beach where their things still sat, thinking Kalinowski had left them as a place to meet up after the storm.

"I started to pick up our wet mess," Ryskoski said. She rinsed their flip-flops in the water.

"I was the first one back on the beach," she said.

She spotted what she thought were beach bags, towels or clothes a little way down the beach. But it actually was Kalinowski.

"When I got right there, I saw her clothes and realized it was her," Ryskoski said. "Another lady from one of the condos helped me roll her over and see if we could help her."

But there was nothing they could do except wait for help.

Deaths caused by lightning strikes are infrequent. Until Tuesday, only four other people had been killed by lightning strikes across the country this year, according to the National Weather Service. Between 2006 and 2012, at least four people in the Tampa Bay area have been killed by lightning strikes.

Kalinowski lived with her husband, Paul. They have two children, an older daughter, Erin, and a son, Josef, who is in his first year at the University of South Florida.

"She bragged about her children to me all the time," Ryskoski said. "She was very proud of her children."

Josef had played the cello in the Brandon High School Orchestra. Kalinowski continued to volunteer for the orchestra's booster club after he graduated.

Kalinowski grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, the youngest of four siblings. She had many life-long friends, said her brother Art Maldonado, 52, of Orlando.

"She had hundreds of friends," Maldonado said. "A lot of people relied on her help."

"She was the most kind, caring, giving person anyone could know," said Ryskoski, who has known Kalinowski since about 2005 when she hired her to work at Amy's Hallmark Cards at the University Mall.

Ryskoski was the manager before the store closed. Kalinowski was a regular and friendly with other costumers. "She would start fixing the ornaments if they were out of order," Ryskoski said.

So she hired her.

"We didn't spend hours and hours together, but it was quality time," she said. "We cherished our moments together as friends."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Keeley Sheehan can be reached at or (813) 661-2453.

Friend recounts beach day that ended in lightning strike death 05/29/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 10:24pm]
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