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Lightning deaths at national park concern visitors

Wednesday - 7/16/2014, 9:06pm  ET

Yangsook Chung, left, and Manlim Choi, originally from South Korea but visiting from Salt Lake City, where Choi is a visiting scholar at the University of Utah, take a snapshot along a short trail at a scenic overlook off Trail Ridge Road, above tree-line at Rocky Mountain National Park, west of Estes Park, Colo., Monday, July 14, 2014. Lightning killed two people last weekend just miles apart in the popular park, where summer storms can close in quickly with deadly results. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

BRENNAN LINSLEY
Associated Press

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) -- Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park are hiking more cautiously after lightning strikes at the popular park killed two people in two days at the height of summer travel season.

Signs around the park warn its 3 million annual visitors that storms can close in quickly with deadly results. But the park hadn't seen a lightning fatality in 14 years until Friday, when Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed and seven more hikers were injured on the Ute Crossing Trail at about 11,400 feet above sea level.

One day later and a few miles away, lightning killed Gregory Cardwell, 52, of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at Rainbow Curve, a pullout on Trail Ridge Road with sweeping vistas from a vantage point about 10,800 feet above sea level. Three others were hurt by that strike.

The deaths were on the minds of visitors Monday.

"We were looking at the sky and (thinking) don't be the tallest thing around," Sarah Jones, of Greeley, said before setting out for a hike with her husband and three children.

Rebecca Tilhet's husband, Justin Teilhet, was among those injured on Ute Crossing. He didn't remember hearing a boom or feeling a sting, just waking up numb on the treeless tundra high in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovering his good friend was trying to revive his wife.

It was a lightning bolt, he learned later, and it killed his wife and left him with a burn on his shoulder and scrapes on his face when he was knocked unconscious.

"I had been laying in the ambulance for maybe 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and the two emergency responders who had worked on my wife came into the ambulance and held my hand and told me (she was dead)," Justin Teilhet said. "They were both next to tears."

Colorado averages three deaths and 15 injuries a year from lightning and often ranks No. 2 in the nation in lightning casualties behind Florida, said Bob Glancy, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder.

"Part of that is because Colorado is a great place to be outside," he said. The terrain and weather also are factors. The mountain profile and summer weather patterns create frequent thunderstorms over the Front Range, which includes Rocky Mountain National Park.

Justin Teilhet, his wife and his friend Nick Tertel, of Fort Collins, Colorado, were in a line of hikers hustling back to the trailhead parking lot on Trail Ridge Road as the weather changed.

"A storm blew in, and it came very fast," Teilhet said Monday from his home in Ohio. "It started raining a little bit. We were hearing claps of thunder everywhere, but there wasn't any lightning."

Teilhet and Cardwell were the first people killed by lightning in the park since a climber died on Longs Peak in 2000, officials said. A woman was injured by lightning last year.

Park officials don't close Trail Ridge Road because of lightning, saying that would be impractical.

Teilhet said he saw one of the advisories about lightning at the trailhead.

"When you see a sign warning you about lightning, you just sort of file it away with the things you already know are dangerous," he said.

Teilhet said he doesn't think the National Park Service could or should have done anything more, and he praised the staff's response.

"This a huge, beautiful, dangerous, amazing place, and they've done a lot to make it accessible to the public," he said.

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP .


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