‘The loudest bang you’ve ever heard’: tragedy strikes with deadly lightning storms

Kings Canyon, central Australia. It’s a fiercely hot summer afternoon. A young couple and their family explore the stunning rich, red landscape. But in the distance, a storm is building – fast.

Jess van der Meer was with her husband Antony when it struck. “You could hear thunder in the far distance,” she recalls. “Then out of nowhere, the loudest bang and clap you have ever heard. I felt a huge voltage go through my whole body and [was] literally blown away, just felt like a bomb had gone off and we were all just blown, just flew.”

Jess regained consciousness. “I didn’t really know what was going on. It was nearly an out-of-body experience. I didn’t think I was alive.”

Sadly, her husband was not so fortunate. “I remember turning around and seeing my sister, and I remember hearing her scream, ‘Antony!’ He was gone.”

Each day, 60 people worldwide are killed by lightning. It strikes with ferocious speed, forking to earth at almost 100 kilometres a second. Massive charges of static electricity created by hail colliding inside clouds. A single strike can hold a charge of up to a billion volts.

In Australia’s Top End, lightning chaser Mike O’Neill is following these storms. He uses the crackle on his car’s AM radio to tell him he’s close to what he’s looking for.

“Something that can… start off so small as a little puffy cloud, and then within forty or fifty minutes it’s this raging thunderstorm,” Mike explains. “It’s producing so much electrical power. It’s just almost instantaneous. You hear it and then it’s too late.”

As for those who lives through it, Mike believes there’s only one reason. “Just luck. Pure luck.”

Two of the luckiest lightning survivors are Kevin Pearson and Gail Hannah. In 1998, Kevin and Hannah came down to a beach on the Great Ocean Road, but when they reached the steps, both were struck by the same freak bolt of lightning – and both survived. They became known as the miracle couple.

“We were on the landing and – bang! We got struck,” Kevin tells Sunday Night. “I actually saw the lightning come at me. It struck me right beside the buckle [and] it blew my belt almost apart. It then travelled down the opposite leg [and] blew my shoe off, blew my shoe apart.”

As they were both standing on the wooden stairs, the lightning then bounced back up and hit Hannah.

“It just well blasted the necklace off my neck,” Hannah recalls. “[It] then travelled across, down and out. I described it originally at the time as like a bazooka blast.”

Kevin remembers the impact vividly. “We were blown apart, you might say, literally. Hannah fell backwards on the landing and was completely still. I looked at Hannah and I thought she was dead.”

Hannah was unconscious but, remarkably, Kevin escaped with only minor burns to his abdomen and thigh.

Eventually Hannah fully recovered from the ordeal, with her tattered jacket a reminder of how lucky she was.

It’s now six months since Jess van der Meer’s husband, Antony, was killed by a freak lightning strike. For Jess, a first step towards finding purpose came a few days after he died – an alert on Antony’s phone, reminding him of a booking he’d made to donate blood.

Not only did Jess keep the appointment, but Antony’s family and friends joined her.

Antony was a lifelong Adelaide Crows fan, and Jess now proudly wears his footy jumper to their games. Jess believes it’s important to celebrate his life with laughter.

“I just want him to be remembered as a really loyal, caring, giving, selfless man that would do anything for you, and just a guy who loved life and had an amazing life.”

Jess has set up a foundation for young women who have lost their partners or husbands. It’s called Purpose for Women, and if you’d like to get in touch with the group, visit Purpose For Women.


Reporter: Steve Pennells

Producer: Niamh Hannon