What Happened When Lightning Struck A Gamer's House

Jeff Hickman's house got struck by lightning early last year. It destroyed two of his three game consoles, zapped his daughter's retainer - which was in her mouth - and caused some other odd damage. He shared his story with Kotaku.

As spoken by Jeff Hickman, executive producer of BioWare Mythic, to Kotaku during a phone interview earlier this month:

"We're in Fairfax Virginia which is where the studio is. I'm just south of Fairfax in a tow called Woodbridge, just outside of D.C. In the spring, we get thunderstorms through here. Other times too, but it starts to get hot and humid and we'll get some crazy really low clouds, black, killer thunderstorms. Giant downpours, electrical stuff.

"It was probably two months ago, end of May and in our house there's me, my wife, our three kids and we're all doing various things. It's 11 o'clock at night. My wife and I are actually playing [BioWare Mythic's game]Warhammer Online. We're in the middle of testing out our new PvP (Player Vs Player) stuff. We're sitting and playing.

"My son's downstairs in his room, on his mobile phone, and his mobile phone happens to be plugged into the wall.

"My daughter, who just got her braces off, is sitting up on her bed getting ready for bed. She's sitting on the edge of her bed, which is a metal canopy bed.

"My other daughter is fast asleep in her bed.

"The storm's coming through. It's crazy. And all of a sudden we get, just like the loudest bang with the biggest brightest light that you've ever seen. And everything in the house goes dead. Everything turns black. And then one second later lights come back on. All the fire alarms are going off. And you literally smell... it's like smoke in the air. It's an odd smoke. I don't know what it was, because there's nothing on fire. But there's this smell in the air, ozone or whatever you want to call it. I don't know what it was.

"Everything is just chaos. Our dogs are going crazy.

"The computers are dead. The only thing that's come back on are the lights and the fire alarms. I turn to my wife and say, 'I think we just got struck by lightning.'

"It's a downpour outside, like crazy downpour... everything is going through my mind.

"We immediately go check on our kids. I go downstairs to my son. My wife goes upstairs to my daughters. I go downstairs and my son is coming out of his room shaken, scared, and he's older - a teenager - and in his bedroom is the breaker box. He says, 'Dad, I was sitting on my bed and I heard the boom and I literally saw a spark jump around the breaker box.'

"His phone was plugged in. He says, 'My phone shocked me really bad. My arm is tingly and numb.'

"I'm like, 'Oh my god are you OK?' And he's fine. No marks on him… I'm like, 'So you're OK.' About this time the fire alarms finally turn off.

"I run upstairs and my daughter, who is 15, has a retainer. And she said she heard the bang and her retainer shocked her, blistered her tongue. How it happened, who knows. But the lightning went in and tried to come out her mouth or something. I don't know. She's OK, but she's like 'I'm not wearing that anymore.'

"My other daughter is fast asleep.

"We look through the house, check the attic and everything is fine. Let me clarify: we're in a modern house. Supposedly everything is lightning protected. Supposedly lightning proof. Everything in my house is on a bad-ass surge protector. It's safe, right?

"Lightning does not care. What I've learned from this is: Lightning does not give a shit.

"So I run outside and I'm immediately soaked. I'm checking if there are any holes in the house. I know there weren't any in the roof because I had already been in the attic. I'm just walking around looking for marks. Luckily no marks on the house. And actually no structural damage. And I'm like, 'Oh my god, thank you for that.'

"And then we start going through the house and checking stuff. It's like: Do our computers work? Oh, no they don't. Wait a minute, they're on surge protectors. They should work. No. They don't work. How about our garage door openers? No, they don't work either. How about our cable modem and our internet router? Nope. They're dead.

"Almost every electronic device that was plugged in in our house - our PS3, my Xbox 360, though the big-screen TV they were plugged into was fine. Luckily it didn't kill my big screen.

"My Wii was OK. My Wii was the one that made it through OK. Why? I don't know. The Wii isn't plugged into the big screen; it's in the kid's area. The 32-inch TV it was plugged into: dead.

Pic: Some of the electronics disabled by the lightning that struck Jeff Hickman's house, photographed for insurance purposes.

"Every DVD player, Blu-ray, VCR in the house - and there's probably five of them at various locations - was dead. I have a media room on my big screen. The big amp that runs my surround sound? Dead. My subwoofer: dead.

"Not a single thing looked broken. The only thing that told us that anything was broken was that either it didn't turn on or, when it attempted to turn on, it would make funny noises. The Blu-ray player would turn on, but when it turned on it would make - crnnnkkkk crnkkkk - funny noises and it was like, "'Oh, something's wrong with that.' It didn't work. It was broken.

"We have two airconditioning units, one for the upstairs and one for the downstairs. One of them: dead. Blew out the furnace that blows through. The second one, which was in the basement, was fine. Our oven, which is an electric oven: dead. And it's still not replaced. Ovens are really expensive and I've been going through insurance. I've been grilling all summer long, and it's amazing what you can cook on the grill.

"All of my data has been OK. The 360 is a great example. I had an older 360 with a 60GB hard drive and we play Rock Band a lot in my house, so it was full of all my Rock Band songs. And we went out, three weeks later, when they announced the new super-slim Xbox at E3. I went out and bought one to replace it, bought one of the data transfer cables, transferred all my data from my old hard-drive, transferred perfectly, no problems at all. All my data was fine. It works great.

"My PS3 data seems to be fine. I had to get a new one, transferred the drive.

"The PCs seemed to be fine. The power supply on those are what seemed to be the problems. I had to get new power supplies.

"I had a netbook, and actually my netbook wasn't even on a surge protector. I brought it from work. I was playing around with a product we're investigating here at the studio and it was just plugged into the wall. And it survived it just fine. Just odd stuff.

"It scared the hell out of us. The people damage scared us. All our kids are in the house; all of our animals (four dogs) are in the house. It's like, 'Oh my god, who would have thought this could happen?' And then the physical damage and then the electronic damage. But all the people are fine. The house is fine. My homeowner's insurance covered every single thing in the house. Basically replaced everything in the house. It's like, alright, thanks.

"Our biggest dog now seems to be doing the 'I'm scared of lightning' thing. He stands next to us and growls at the lightning whenever we have lightning and thunder in the area.

"We had electricians come in as part of the process of getting the insurance to cover everything. The first question is: Why would this happen? Aren't houses grounded?

"And they're like, 'Yep, here's how it works,' and they talked us through it. Here's how modern houses are protected and there's not much beyond that.

"What I am doing is - I have surge protectors on all my outlets - you can get a surge protector that goes before your breaker box that is basically a surge protector that protects your whole house. Hopefully next time this happens, the lightning will kill that first and not everything else. What's funny is that it comes through and didn't throw, I don't think, any of the breakers. It obviously went through the breaker box, at least we think it did, and then it powered through every one of our surge protectors.

"Who knows if that big cool new surge protector will do anything. Hopefully it will. That's the only thing we've changed.

"You have these questions like, 'Why did it kill my Xbox and my PS3 but didn't kill my Wii or PS3?' The [electricians]are like, 'Who knows, nobody really understands. There's no way after the fact to tell you how powerful it was."

"They kind of shrug their shoulders.

"My house is near other houses. It's pretty much the same height. No idea why it would be the one."

(Picture atop this post is of a lightning strike in Las Vegas, photographed by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)


    Surge protectors aren't safe anymore...

      My lamen understanding is surge protectors still let an initial burst through but sustained high levels will melt the elements away stopping the circuits being completed and this saving lives etc.

      Trouble is the initial burst for lightning is massive and very 'spike oriented' allowing such events to go through.

      As for some appliances making it an others not I'd suggest that's down to a combination of quality power supplies vs. crappy ones and shortest distances for lightning to travel vs. long branches etc.

      My best guess anyhow, glad to hear you and your family are OK though!

    The same thing happen at my home. There was a bad storm. All of a sudden lightning struck while I was playing the Wii. The switch sparked I thought that was the end!
    But amazingly the Wii survived but my poor pc fried!

    “My PS3 data seems to be fine. I had to get a new one, transferred the drive."

    Um, how does that work? Was this the Blu-ray player with the busted drive? Or had he backed up, because you can't transfer the hdd to another ps3.

      yes you can.

        You can if both ps3's are turned on, there is an option to data transfer in the system setting, that moves all data from the old hdd to the new one, even copy protected save files.

        If your old ps3 wont turn on though, and you move the hard drive to the new ps3, it will force you to reformat the drive and lose all your data.

    I do know that the Wii has some kind of super-sensitive surge protector built-in. Maybe that saved it.

    Isn't there a general rule about not leaving electronics on during an electrical storm?

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