Phyllis Kalinowski strolled along the beach early Tuesday evening, right into the path of a sweeping thunderstorm that kicked a bolt of lightning in her direction. The strike killed the 51-year-old Brandon bookkeeper, wife and mother of two.
Little warning comes when such events occur. The thunderstorms that visit Florida each summer move fast and often send out lightning strikes well in advance of the precipitation.
“It doesn’t have to be raining for a person to be struck by lightning,” said Daniel Noah, with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. “You can be struck six miles from a storm.”
The time to take cover, he said, is whenever you see cloud towers forming.
“If it’s sunny above you, you may think you’re OK, but you’re not,” he said. “If you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning. And on the beach, you are the tallest object.”
Kalinowski was struck along the shoreline in Belleair Beach. Authorities said the bookkeeper and a friend were spending the day at the beach and that the friend briefly left Kalinowski about 6 p.m.
That’s when a heavy thunderstorm struck. The friend returned and found Kalinowski on the ground. Paramedics were called, but the woman who friends say always put others before herself did not survive.
On Wednesday, some of those friends spoke about a woman whose life made theirs better.
Kalinowski volunteered with the Brandon High School orchestra and remained involved in the orchestra’s booster club after her son graduated last year.
She participated in the Susan G. Komen three-day fundraising walks because a friend died of cancer a few years ago.
She was a dedicated member of a quilting club.
“She was a beach person,” said Nancy Chinander, a friend whose daughter graduated last year with Kalinowski’s son, Josef.
“She was a wonderful person,” Chinander said Wednesday. “She was always there for all of the orchestra events and the fundraisers and trips. She was there to help chaperone and always with a sense of humor and a smile. She was very enthusiastic about life.”
The thunderstorm that killed Kalinowski passed over the beach between 5 and 6 p.m. Tuesday, according to the weather service. The amount of lightning created by the storm was fairly typical of thunderstorms that frequent central Florida.
But this one claimed Kalinowski, the first lightning fatality in Florida this year. Four others have been killed by lightning across the United States in 2013. Last year, there were five deadly strikes in Florida, two of which happened in a single strike on a beach.
Lightning historically has killed more people annually than tornadoes, said Hugh Christian, senior lightning researcher at the Global Hydrology and Climate Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
“It is not uncommon for people to get hit,” he said.
The extent of the injury depends on whether the person is hit directly, he said. If lightning strikes a person, internal organs are damaged and death is the likely outcome, he said. If a strike hits nearby and affects a person indirectly, the physical damage might not be fatal.
“The body is an electrical system,” he said. “The heart beats electrically, and an indirect strike can stop the heart from beating and yet cause no significant damage to the body.” He said quick action such as CPR can revive those types of victims. “They can recover,” he said.
Lightning-detection and warning systems are in place at some golf courses, sports arenas and complexes, said Noah, with the National Weather Service.
The detection systems show where lightning is occurring and what direction it’s heading. The warning systems, he said, measure the Earth’s electromagnetic field and monitor static charges that can become lightning strikes.
“You can spend as little or as much as you want on a system,” he said. “It can be expensive, if you want to track where every lighting strike struck.”
At Raymond James Stadium, minute-to-minute weather information is monitored and a weather expert is consulted.
If severe weather is approaching, officials at the stadium make an announcement and include the message on the scoreboard.
Fans are directed toward the covered concourse. Open concessions stands, such as the ones in the north and south end zones, are closed to prevent people from congregating in uncovered areas.
“We’re way ahead of it to make sure we make the right decisions,” said Mike Davis, the Tampa Sports Authority assistant director of stadium operations. “We’re definitely looking out for the fans.”
On Wednesday, she was mourned by friends and acquaintances.
Cheryl Davidson knew Kalinowski for three years; their children were members of the Brandon High orchestra.
“She would do anything for you,” Davidson said. “She had a heart that was just made of gold. I was reading her Facebook page and I was floored by how many friends she had.
“I’m still in denial,” she said. “I still can’t come to terms with it.”