It began as the end to a perfect Montana day at the campground at Painted Rocks Reservoir for a Missoula woman, her family and friends.
That changed in an instant last Friday night when a lightning flash turned night into day and a powerful boom of thunder drove everyone nearby to their knees with a scream. In that terrifying split second, Racquel Rausch found her body floating in the air and her mind asking God to spare her life.
It’s been a week now since the Missoula woman was struck by lightning just as she held her insulated metal cup to the sky to celebrate the successful retrieval of the family’s paddleboards from the lake shore.
It was the family’s second annual trip to the remote campground in the Bitterroot. They had just finished a late supper Friday night and were sitting in camp chairs watching what appeared to be a distant lightning storm.
“The storm was just magnificent,” Rausch said. “It was like a lightshow. You grow up in western Montana and you get used to watching thunderstorms. You marvel at them, but they’re not something you’re afraid of.”
Rausch remembers asking her husband what he thought the chances were they could get hit. He replied it wasn’t likely since they were surrounded by mountains and trees that were much higher than they.
It was dark when they felt the first gust of wind that sent a pair of youngsters scrambling down to the lake to retrieve the family’s paddleboards. By the time they arrived back at the camper, the lightning was getting more intense.
Rausch raised her cup into the air to celebrate the paddleboards' rescue.
“My arm just froze,” she said. “There was almost a magnetic pull followed by a big bright light. I remember that bright light and the feeling of electricity flowing through my body. I found my body floating in the air.”
“I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. I’m going to die,’” Rausch said. “And then I said a little a prayer: 'God, please don’t take me yet. I have to be here for my children.’”
In the next moment, she found herself on the ground. As she got to her knees, she heard her husband, Kyle, asking why she was on the ground.
He had been sitting about 8 feet away. He still can’t remember seeing the flash or hearing the thunder. They believe he might have been knocked momentarily unconscious from the strike.
She told him she had just been hit by lightning. He replied that he thought she was being overly dramatic, but when he moved closer he could see her skin had turned pale and gray. He reached over and felt the burn in her sweatshirt.
“It was still smoldering,” she said. “He ripped it off and said, ‘You did get hit.’ There was a metallic taste in my mouth. My arm was dead.”
They later found that there were burn holes at the bottom of every leg of the chairs and table on the carpet that was placed under the camp trailer’s awning. The strike appeared to have hit her cup, exited through her bicep and then traveled through her chair into the ground.
“It all happened so quickly,” she said. “You grow up counting the time between when you see lightning and then hear the thunder to figure out many miles away the storm is. I know now that doesn’t work.”
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Rausch said she really doesn’t know how to explain how it felt when she was struck.
She likens it to being hooked to 1,000 transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units and turning them all on at the same time.
“It felt like every single muscle was straining and shaking and convulsing,” she said. “I was completely awake for the entire thing. It probably lasted less than a second, but it seemed a lot longer. So many things raced through my mind.
“Our bodies are capable of so much,” Rausch said. “It’s amazing how fast your brain can fire. I honestly believe that if I didn’t quickly think that I was going to be OK, that I would not be here today. I’m a very spiritual person. I believe God’s greatest gift is giving us a will to live.
“When I asked Him to spare my life, I could almost feel His strength and hear Him saying, ‘This is your life. All you have to do is buck up and you can do this,’” she said.
Rausch knew that some people struck by lightning survive the initial strike only to die later from cardiac arrest.
Painted Rocks Fire Department’s Jeff Trace was the first emergency responder on the scene.
“Bless his heart,” she said. “He was so kind and compassionate. He told me: ‘I can’t believe you’re standing.’ I said, ‘Me, neither.’ I asked him if he believed in God. And then I told him He was definitely standing by my side when the lightning struck. That certainly gave me great comfort.”
After it was determined a Life Flight helicopter was unable to land at Painted Rocks, Rausch was transported by ambulance to Hamilton’s Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and then flown by helicopter to Missoula.
Two EKGs showed her heart was working fine, and Rausch decided to go home that night.
“My body is healing really well,” she said Thursday. “It’s amazing to me how our bodies are made and how we can withstand something like that. For my heart to survive unscathed, I feel like that’s a miracle.”
Rausch said she’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support on social media and, especially, from family and friends who have made the effort to reach and touch her life.
“I’ve always been a very friendly person and love spending time with my family,” she said. “When you get older, your friend circle gets smaller. … After this happened, I had friends come over for pizza that I hadn’t seen in 22 years. Some gal reached out on Facebook and said she wanted to send me some burn cream that she had developed. …That meant a lot to me. I don’t think we can survive without that human touch.
“I’ve just been taken back by all the good things in the world and the good people who live here,” she said. “This has made me think about what my purpose is in being here. The media makes people think their purpose needs to be some huge accomplishment, but I’m happy just being a mom and being alive and still being here. This life is pretty amazing.
“I didn’t want my 15 minutes of fame to be this, but I lived through it,” she said. “If that’s my 15 minutes, I’m fine with it.”