By Lady Mary of Montevale
Perhaps Thor, Norse god of thunder, had finally decided to attend the Pennsic War. Perhaps it was just an unusual weather formation in an area already noted for its strong summer thunderstorms. Whichever explanation you prefer, in the mid-afternoon of the first Saturday of Pennsic XLI Cooper’s Lake Campground found itself in the midst of a violent but brief weather phenomenon known as a microburst.
According to the NOAA web site, a microburst is a downdraft in a thunderstorm that is less than 2.5 miles in scale. It can produce damage comparable or even worse than that of some tornadoes. The strong winds, heavy rainfall and possibly hail, and the lightning of a thunderstorm are concentrated in a very small area for a very short time, typically less than fifteen minutes.
All these contributing factors existed in a storm that moved toward Pennsic on the afternoon of July 28. Knowing that a thunderstorm was coming, many attendees who had already trolled in were rushing to get their tents and pavilions set up before it arrived. Others were still in or near their vehicles parked on the Battlefield, awaiting their turn at Troll, a process which was going to be completed electronically for the first time ever.
And then the microburst hit.
One person on the Battlefield described it as “a wall of water that took about 20 seconds to cross the entire length of the field.” At the northern end of the Serengeti where members of the Black Dragon Company were setting up their carport-style pavilions, Erica Rothals saw the dark wall of rain coming from the direction of Mount Eislinn (the hill north of the Battlefield on which the current Pennsic number is mowed as Roman numerals into the grass each year). A few seconds later, the lone tree at the Currie Road side of the Thrown Weapons range vanished behind the approaching wall of water. There was almost no time for anyone to react; within 15 seconds they were soaking wet.
Hail fell in the B Block where it took out three carport-style tents. On the Serengeti people in numerous camps struggled to keep tents and canopies which were not yet fully set up or staked down from collapsing or blowing away completely in the strong winds. Leon the Navigator later told friends that his eighteen-inch Panther tent stakes were bent at right angles before they pulled out completely.
Near the Barn, the proprietor of Dragon’s Magic realized she had made a wise decision a short time before not to try to move her vehicle and trailer to the parking area before the storm hit. She’d had some previous experience with bad storms at Pennsic: at Pennsic XXXII (2003) the maple tree beside the wooden house from which she merchants was struck by lightning and destroyed.
The lightning strike this past Saturday turned out to be on the “new” side of the center of Pennsic, near the Food Court and the beginning of the merchant area. Baron Master Eirik of Munitions Grade Arms was standing at the back of his space on Plunder Lane, looking toward the southeast and the general direction of Chirurgeon’s Point on the services block. In the merchant office trailer across the road from that services block, Cindy Cooper was looking out a window in the direction of the merchant spaces to her northwest. Both she and Eirik saw the lightning bolt which came to ground at some point midway between their respective locations. Only in later conversation did they determine they had seen the same lightning strike.
The point where that strike hit turned out to be the back end of the roofline at the brown wooden building in which Anselm Arms and Armor and Acanthusleaf Designs are located. Neither of those merchants was yet on site, but Gareth of Anselm Arms received a phone call at home from one of his neighbor merchants telling him his building had been struck by lightning. When he arrived on site on Sunday, it was a bit of a surprise and certainly a great relief to find his building had not been reduced to smoking ruins. He had lost a short section of his roof line and a power strip.
Gareth still has the splintered pieces of 2 x 4 that had been nailed along the top of his roof as well as the nails themselves, now bent at a ninety degree angle. With only minor damage to the building, it is now easy for him to joke that the lightning strike hit where it did only because the much taller Stave Church which used to stand across the road is now gone.
Mystic Mail now occupies that space across the road. The proprietors are very thankful they had none of their electronics unpacked, much less up and running at the time. Anything plugged in would have been fried. It was a terrifying enough experience for Ailís when the lightning strike which was so close by knocked her off her feet.
The important electronics for the new check-in procedures at Troll, not far from the spot where the lightning struck, apparently did not fare so well. When Troll finally re-opened, the oh-so-important receipts (the ones that prove you have already been through Troll and have paid your site fees if you would happen to lose your medallion) had to be written out by hand. Some people who trolled in after the microburst on Saturday afternoon and into the evening reported by cell phone to friends still en route to the War that it was taking as long as 5 or 6 hours to complete trolling in.
Meanwhile in the merchant area and in camps all across the Serengeti, people were telling each other that they had also felt varying degrees of tingling (like a mild electric shock) from the lightning strike. Only 50 or 60 yards from the Anselm Arms building, Ian of Montevale and others who were helping a merchant set up felt the tingling in their feet.
Down along By the Way, the Baron and Baroness of Sternfeld had been inside their tent struggling to keep the wind from lifting off the top of the tent. While she clutched at a tent flap, the Baroness inadvertently had one arm against a tent pole and she felt an electric charge that entered at the base of her palm and moved through her upraised arm to exit near her shoulder. The Baron was not touching any tent poles, but he still felt the electric charge in his hand. Their shade canopy that had survived several strong Pennsic storms was a total ruin.
In the Barony of Fenix camp at the corner of Brewer’s and Fosse Way, a man holding a 20-foot aluminum pole and a second man holding onto the rest of the carport frame they were setting up both felt a “zap” from the electrical charge in the area while a camp mate who was holding a wooden tent pole felt nothing.
The many reports such as these over an area of hundreds of yards is not unusual in the wake of a lightning strike. As a positive electrical charge builds up overhead in a thunderstorm, a corresponding negative charge of ions in the ground beneath will try to reach upward, moving through whatever happens to occupy the intervening space, whether it is a tent pole, the tent itself, a building, or people. When this happens, you do not want to be the tallest thing in the area, even if it means quickly lying down flat in the mud. If you are in a car, you will be pretty safe from the electricity of the storm because the tires on your vehicle will ground it. Strong winds or suddenly rising flood waters are a different matter for vehicles and their occupants, of course.
Luckily, despite the numerous accounts of people who felt something when the lightning struck at the Anselm Arms building, no one seems to have suffered any serious injuries or lasting effects--unless you want to count expressions such as “I’ve had the experience now; I do not want to have it again,” and some general apprehension about how someone might react if another thunderstorm of any kind happens during Pennsic.
By Sunday, Pennsic Mayor Lord Manuel de la Rosa y Botella de Miérkoles had posted to his blog reporting the situation at Troll, just as earlier in the summer he had moved to quell rumors in many places on line when he posted confirmation that the bridge on Currie Road would not be finished in time for Pennsic and detour routes to Cooper’s Lake would be needed. This time he added updates about how things were up and running again at Troll to reassure those yet to arrive at this year’s War. By now everything seems to be pretty much back to normal and ready for the influx of arrivals over Pennsic XLI’s middle weekend.