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Long after fatal lightning strike, Dade City man's memory, message endures

Julie Inversso looked out her kitchen window Tuesday morning. Clouds filled the sky, but nothing seemed all that threatening, much the same as Sept. 10 when the phone rang just before noon and a man said, "Justin has been struck by lightning.''

Her first reaction: What a horrible prank. Her husband, Frank, was down at the Pasco Sheriff's Office taking the lieutenant's test. Her other children, Kara, 19, and Dominick, 14, were in their bedrooms.

The caller persisted, making sure this was the Inversso residence in Dade City. He said he was at Adventure Island where Justin worked as a lifeguard.

"Justin has been struck by lightning and we're trying to resuscitate him.''

Julie peered out the window again. How could there be lightning out of that sky?

"We're taking him to the hospital,'' the caller said, and now Julie knew.

"Tell him we love him,'' she said. "Tell him we're coming.''

Her heart raced. "It just seemed like the floor came out from under me,'' she recalled. "I screamed to the kids, "Get dressed! Justin's been hurt!''

Frank, a 21-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office who supervises security at the Dade City courthouse, sped home and gathered his family. Just a few hours earlier, they had planned a different trip to Tampa. Justin, an engineering student at the University of South Florida, had turned 21 the day before. He stood nearly 6-feet-7 and had an appetite like a horse. It would be fun to watch him dive into a big steak at a celebratory dinner.

The family drove south and prayed. Maybe he would be all right.

• • •

A few days later, more than 2,000 people stood in line at the Calvary Assembly of God, waiting for a chance to embrace and console the family. Julie and Frank stood for six hours.

Justin had been among the most popular and well-liked students at the Pasco High — captain of the swim team, president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, honor roll math wizard. He taught Bible classes, mentored other students.

His USF friends told about the day he turned 21. They had been on a bus to a wake-boarding park when a motorcycle raced past.

Justin engaged his friends. His mother takes comfort in their story. "He talked about the need to know God so if something happens, you'll be safe in God's arms,'' she said. "Justin was very spiritual.''

The news reports of the lightning strike were overshadowed by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but they did provide some details. After weather warnings, Justin cleared swimmers from the Key West Rapids, a six-story, 700-foot slide. Lightning struck the tower as he stood in three feet of water.

"He saved lives,'' his mother said.

Many who knew Justin wrestled with the obvious question: Why him?

His mother knows the answer: "God always takes the best ones home. Justin was an amazing young man. He didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. You give your kids material things as they grow up, but the best thing you can teach them is they will have eternal life. Justin knew that. And we know he's in heaven.''

• • •

Two events this week will pay tribute to Justin.

At 10 a.m. Thursday at the Tampa Firefighters Museum on Zack Street, Julie will be among the speakers as the National Weather Service presents a new campaign to promote lightning safety awareness. Tampa and Orlando receive more lightning strikes than anyplace in the U.S. and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will proclaim Sunday to June 30 Lightning Safety Awareness Week.

Then on Saturday, golfers at six courses throughout Pasco and Hernando counties will play in a scramble to raise money to send kids to summer camp and help fund a scholarship in Justin's name at Florida College in Temple Terrace.

Bill Schroder, a retired Publix manager who watched Justin grow up, lined up several corporate sponsors but hopes to get more golfers to register. The courses are the Abbey at St. Leo, Tampa Bay Golf & Country Club, Silverado, the Groves, Hernando Oaks and Scotland Yard.

"I've never done anything like this,'' Schroder said, "and I'm not much of a golfer. But I want so badly to honor Justin. He was just such a fine person in every regard.''