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Two hit by lightning on beach

A Wisconsin teenager strolling the beach with his grandmother was critically injured Tuesday when a bolt of lightning knocked both to the ground as thunderstorms moved into the area.

"I told my husband, "There's two people still out there on the beach,'

" said Helen Miller, 64, of Tampa, who witnessed the strike from a fifth-floor time share in a waterfront resort.

"The next thing I knew, the lightning had hit them and they were both down."

The accident was one of a series of incidents attributed to the severe weather, which flooded streets, knocked down trees and caused scattered power outages in the Tampa Bay area.

At Tampa International Airport, lightning ignited a fire on the roof of Airside D, causing flight delays and a 20-minute evacuation of the building at 8:15 p.m., officials said.

Elsewhere, rescue workers scrambled to respond to traffic accidents attributed to bad visibility and slick roads.

About 4,000 people lost power in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The injured beachgoer _ identified by police as Dennis Chartier, 16, of Milwaukee _ was in full cardiac arrest and no longer breathing when rescue workers arrived on the Treasure Island beach just before 5 p.m.

He was given CPR and rushed to Palms of Pasadena Hospital, where he was in intensive care late Tuesday.

The grandmother, identified as Elith Ruh, was less seriously injured. She was in guarded condition at Columbia St. Petersburg Medical Center.

Witnesses said most beachgoers had scrambled to get off the sand as skies grew dark.

Lightning was starting to pop outside the Jamaican on the Gulf resort as Miller sat in her time share paying bills and looking out the window at the beach.

Soon just two people were left on the sand, the teenager and his grandmother.

Then Miller heard a mighty crack. "I saw the bolt come down and hit the ground, and they fell," she said. "I hollered at my husband. I said, "Those people have gone down!' "

"I'll tell you," she said, "that was really scary. I was so shook up I didn't want to go out on the balcony (to look more closely) because of all the lightning."

Terry Schoenberg, a maintenance man at a nearby Holiday Inn, said he rushed out to the beach and found the pair face down in a shallow channel of stranded water.

He turned them over. The boy appeared beyond help.

"I thought he was dead," said Schoenberg, 41, of St. Petersburg, who said he performed CPR on the grandmother until paramedics arrived.

The boy, clad in a swimming suit, was burned on the chest, and the hair on his legs was singed. He also appeared to have a wound on his foot, where the lightning may have exited the body, witnesses said.

Ruh was disoriented and even combative when paramedics reached the beach, officials said. They said those symptoms likely were from either the jolt of electricity or a head injury from falling.

The pair appeared to have been on vacation and had checked into a Treasure Island motel a couple of days ago, police said.

Elsewhere in the bay area, more than 150 lightning strikes were reported during the storm's peak Tuesday evening. Lightning knocked out traffic lights at two major intersections in St. Petersburg, officials said. In Hillsborough County, the storm dumped 2.5 inches of rain between 6 and 7 p.m. and unleashed winds of up to 40 mph, said Andy Nash of the National Weather Service.

One St. Petersburg woman felt lucky to be alive after lightning struck a mammoth oak tree outside her home and sent a 3-foot-thick, 60-foot-long branch crashing beside her living room window.

"The house was shaking when it fell," said Esther Levine, 34, of 131 36th St. N, who could barely leave the house because of the mass of branches outside the front door.

"Talk about a loud noise," she said. "I mean, it was unreal."

At the Tampa airport, a control tower employee saw flames on the Airside D roof after after lightning strikes about 8:15 p.m. and called 911, said Angel Garcia, assistant director of operations for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Tampa firefighters put out the blaze in minutes, officials said.

A striking storm

+ From approximately 5 to 5:30 p.m., the National Weather Service recorded about 150 strikes in the bay area.

+ In the same period, more than 1,000 strikes were recorded between the bay area and Fort Myers.

+ More than 65 people have been hit by lightning so far this year in the bay area; the average is about 42 a year.

Source: National Weather Service

_ Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Jeffrey Gettleman contributed to this report.

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