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Apparent lightning strike kills Brandon mom on Belleair Beach

BELLEAIR BEACH — Phyllis Kalinowski owned a bookkeeping business and spent hours each week volunteering with the Brandon High School Orchestra boosters, staying on even after her son, a cellist, graduated.

On Tuesday, she made time to relax and headed to Belleair Beach, sandwiched between Clearwater and Indian Rocks beaches, with a friend.

Deputies are still investigating exactly what happened next, but this much is known: Kalinowski, 51, spent the day on the sand with friend Dawn Ryskoski. At some point, Ryskoski left, then returned about 6 p.m.

She found Kalinowski unresponsive on the beach in the 2500 block of Gulf Boulevard, said Sgt. David DiSano, a Pinellas County sheriff's spokesman.

A violent storm had rolled through, DiSano said. It appeared Kalinowski had been hit by lightning.

"It was a pretty significant storm," DiSano said. "There were a lot of lightning strikes."

According to the National Weather Service, there have been just four other deaths caused by lightning strikes so far this year across the country — none in Florida, until Tuesday.

"This is a reminder as we go into the summer storm season it's important to pay very close attention to the weather, as it can change very quickly," Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker said Tuesday night.

Kalinowski had volunteered for the past five years with the Brandon High School Orchestra Boosters Association. On Tuesday, friends from the boosters searched for words to describe her, still unsure of whether to speak in past or present tense.

She joined the group because her son, Josef, played with the orchestra, which is the oldest in Hillsborough County.

She attended fundraisers and chaperoned trips to San Francisco, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Orlando, said fellow booster Nancy Chinander.

Kalinowski continued volunteering this past year even though Josef had graduated and gone on to college. She helped in whatever way she could — even buying fundraiser items from students struggling to raise money for the orchestra's trips, Chinander said.

"She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody," she said.

Kalinowski volunteered as the boosters' treasurer this past year, arguably the most demanding position, said her friend and fellow booster Karen Riddle.

She got her energy from the children and was a mentor to them, Riddle said.

"She treated those children — every one of them — like she was their mom," Riddle said. "She just had a great connection with the children."

She was energetic, approachable and outgoing — all necessary attributes for some of the orchestra's field trips.

"She saw how much being part of that organization helped the children," Riddle said. "She saw the benefits and how it created a bond between the students."

Kalinowski leaves a husband of 26 years, Paul Kalinowski, and two children, Josef and Erin.

Although lightning strikes are especially common in Florida's summer storms, deaths here caused by lightning are unusual — but by no means unheard of.

Among the most recent deaths caused by lightning in Florida:

• Jesse Watlington, 11, of Fort Myers was struck by lightning in October 2012 as he walked with his middle school classmates to football practice. He was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he died after being removed from life support.

• Justin Savers Inversso, 21, a lifeguard at Tampa's Adventure Island, was struck by lightning in September 2011 while evacuating guests from the Key West Rapids ride. Inversso was at the top of the ride, about 700 feet above the ground, when the storm approached. Co-workers began CPR, but he died at a hospital.

• A 16-year-old boy, Sam Santilli, died four days after he and his mother were struck by lightning in August 2007 on Treasure Island. His mother survived.

• Another 16-year-old, Jose Alvarez Jeronimo, was killed by lightning in August 2006 while working on a roof in Wesley Chapel.

• Francisco Tirado, 58, was struck by lightning in July 2006 in St. Petersburg while playing with his 13-year-old grandson. He died from his injuries seven months later, according to his obituary.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 226-3433. Dan Sullivan can be reached at or (727) 869-6229.

Safety tips

• Plan your evacuation and safety measures. When you first see lightning or hear thunder, activate your emergency plan. Now is the time to go to a building or a vehicle. Lightning often precedes rain, so don't wait for the rain to begin.

• If outdoors, avoid water, high ground, open spaces and metal objects. Unsafe places include underneath canopies, small picnic or rain shelters or near trees. Where possible, find shelter in a substantial building or in a fully enclosed vehicle such as a car, truck or a van with the windows shut.

• If lightning is striking nearby when you are outside, you should crouch down, putting feet together; and avoid proximity to other people.

• Suspend activities for 30 minutes after the last lightning or thunder.

• Injured persons do not carry an electrical charge and can be handled safely. Call 911 or send for help immediately.

Source: National Lightning Safety Institute


Video from the scene of Tuesday's strike is at Links in today's Times at

Apparent lightning strike kills Brandon mom on Belleair Beach 05/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 10:20am]
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