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Fan dies after lightning strikes Pocono

6 August 2012

The severe electrical storm that rolled over Pocono Raceway shortly before 5pm local time and forced the early end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Pennsylvania 400 race, also claimed one race fan's life, left another critical and sent eight others to hospital.

"Unfortunately, a member of our raceway family here, a fan, has passed away," said the president of the venue, Brandon Igdalsky. "On behalf of myself, the entire family and everybody here, a really heartfelt [condolences] that this happened."

Later, he added on Twitter: "My family and I are praying for all those that were involved in the lightning strikes. ... Difficult evening for all."

"We are deeply saddened that a fan has died and others were injured by lightning strikes following today's race at Pocono," added NASCAR spokesman David Higdon. "Our thoughts are with them as well as those affected by this unfortunate accident."

There were at least two direct lightning strikes that hit the area between the grandstand exits at turn 3 and one of the gates to the parking facilities. The ten fans leaving the Raceway after the early end of the NASCAR race were either hit directly by the initial strike or by related jolts from metallic objects in the parking lot.

"The visibility was very poor and all of a sudden [we] saw a bolt of lightning right in front of our windshield," eyewitness Kyle Manger from New Jersey told reporters. "When it became a little more visible, we saw two bodies next to a destroyed tent with people scrambling."

The spectator who died had been near his car when he was struck. He went into cardiac arrest and fellow fans attempted CPR until the paramedics arrived to transport him first to the track's medical facility and then to the Pocono Medical Center in nearby Stroudsburg, Pa., where he was declared dead. His identity was not made public.

Another fan was also reported to be in a critical condition. Three more were also moderately injured, while five others required only light treatment at the Raceway before being transported to local hospitals as a precaution for evaluation.

In total, it was estimated that 85,000 spectators had been watching the race, which had already been delayed by two hours because of drying operations following earlier rain fall. The race officials were always very aware that they were racing the arrival of the next storm front that was being shown on the local weather radar systems, and finally the race was called on lap 98 of 160 as the storm arrived.

"I'm pretty sure I know which one it was," said race winner Jeff Gordon. “We were walking down pit road, the umbrellas weren't doing any good, there was a huge, huge crack from lightning. You could tell it was very close."

He was clearly shaken by news of the casualties. "I mean, that's the thing that's going to take away from the victory, is the fact that somebody was affected by that."

"I just got home and found out about the tragic loss we had today at Pocono," wrote fellow driver Mark Martin on Twitter. "I am so sorry for the family's [sic] that we're involved."

"I want to throw up after reading the days of today's tragic death," Brad Keselowski added on the social media site. "How terribly, terribly sad ... My condolences to the family.

There will inevitably be questions over whether the Raceway and NASCAR should have done more to ensure the safety of the spectators, given that the incoming storm had been tracked for such a long time before it arrived.

An official severe storm warning was issued at 4.12pm local time, but NASCAR allowed the race to continue to run for another half hour before throwing the red flag at 4.42pm for rain as the storm arrived over Pocono.

A spokesman for the track said that public address announcements had been made as soon as the race was stopped warning spectators to take cover, and that alerts had also been sent out via the Raceway's Twitter feed.

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp disagreed with suggestions that they should have acted even quicker to stop the race and order the evacuation of the grandstands: “If there was a situation that warranted us to halt a race to threatening weather, we would certainly do that," he said.


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