EDITOR’S NOTE: Will LeBlanc, 36, of Baton Rouge, was one of nine men on a duck hunt in Hopedale who found himself in the thick of a lightning storm on Jan. 11. He wanted to share the story of what happened that morning so that everyone might be more cautious in the weather. At his request, the two victims of the lightning strike remain anonymous.
When Will LeBlanc, Capt. Ted DeAgano III and seven buddies headed out for a Hopedale duck hunt last month, they were hoping for just another fun-filled morning with plenty of birds to shoot and all of the normal joking, laughing and camaraderie that accompanies a typical day in the marshes of south Louisiana.
What Mother Nature had in store for them that Saturday, Jan. 11, however, was something completely different.
An innocuous-looking line of thunderstorms visible on cell phone radar before they headed out rapidly deteriorated into a full-on lightning storm as the four boats arrived in the marsh and hunters started throwing out decoys in the pre-dawn darkness.
Two boats with four men had left from Breton Sound Marina, and two boats with five hunters left from Campo’s Marina in Shell Beach, and the plan was that everyone would head to their respective areas and be ready for shooting time.
That all changed around 5:30 a.m. when two of the hunters were struck by lightning as they stood in their boat working decoys.
“It went straight from going to have an enjoyable duck hunt and scouting new ponds to a full-on life-or-death situation,” said DeAgano, 42, who operates Scales-N-Tales Charters in Hopedale and happened to be invited to go along for the hunt that morning.
LeBlanc was driving his Gator Tail with DeAgano on board for the 15-minute ride from Campo’s to the blinds.
“When we first got to the property, it started raining. A heavy rain, but nothing too bad,” LeBlanc said. “About ten minutes after that is when the lightning started to get really bad, and that’s when we got a little nervous.
“It was like, ‘Man, this is way worse that what we were thinking it was going to be.’”
And the marsh offered no protection from the storm.
“It’s completely wide open,” LeBlanc said. “The only vegetation is cordgrass and a little bit of roseaus.
“Unless you’re laying flat down on your belly, you’re the highest point out there no matter what you’re doing.”
LeBlanc and DeAgano had just escorted a boat with two hunters to their location for the morning when they saw flashing lights from across the marsh where the hunters in their group who left from Breton Sound were getting ready.
“The first couple of flashes, I knew they were hunting, so I just assumed they were throwing out decoys and I could see their lights,” LeBlanc said. “Then they started flashing their lights and I knew something was up.”
As he made the trip of about 500 yards to check on his friends, LeBlanc assumed they were just stuck in the mud or had engine trouble.
“In fact, when we pulled up, we said, ‘Game wardens, can we see your license?’” LeBlanc said.
The mood changed quickly when they understood what had just happened.
In piecing together the story, it seems the 37-year-old driver of the boat was standing up holding a Q-Beam in one hand and the tiller handle of the motor in the other when he was hit by lightning, which struck the motor and exited through the light. The fingers and palms of his gloves, along with his shirt and jacket sleeves, were blown off and the Q-Beam was destroyed, LeBlanc said.
A 30-year-old with him who was working decoys also was struck.
DeAgano, an electrician who owns National Electrical Contractors in Metairie in addition to being a charter boat captain, said although it was bad, it was a “best case scenario” in the event of a lightning strike.
“The motor of the Go-Devil was submerged in mud, which gave them direction for an earth ground,” he said. “And believe it or not, I believe the little rubber bicycle handle they put on the throttle handle of Go-Devils and Pro Drives was what saved their lives, in combination with the motor being in mud and both guys being ejected into the ice cold water.
“It cooled them down and kept them from going into shock.”
LeBlanc said the 30-year-old was knocked out but came to shortly after, and had the presence of mind to grab the 37-year-old’s life vest and lift his face out of the water.
“He basically ran the boat into the bank as he was dragging the other guy in the water,” LeBlanc said. “The boat was still on and somehow never died, either. It was still running.”
The 30-year-old tried to use his cell phone to call for help, but the keypad didn’t work.
Incredibly, the 'Siri' button did, and he got Siri to call another member of the hunting party. They came to help but were in an outboard and couldn’t get close with the mud, so they ran through the marsh on foot to assist and flashed their lights to attract LeBlanc’s attention.
LeBlanc had cell numbers for Robbie and Zach Campo, so they were called and arranged for rescue personnel to be waiting at the marina.
Then the Campo’s, who knew the general area where the group was hunting, jumped into one of their bay boats and met the group in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, where they took both victims aboard and quickly transported them back to the marina.
“The Campo family, the great family that they are, are just phenomenal people,” DeAgano said. “They had full paramedics, fire department, an ambulance and sheriff’s department at the marina waiting on us there, along with putting one of their boats in the water as fast as they could to get to us.”
But DeAgano said it was a long half-hour as the group waited in the marsh until the storm had passed to load the victims back into a boat and head to the MRGO.
“Everybody was lying low on the ground with the aluminum boats away from us to where we didn’t have another situation,” DeAgano said. “It was a long 20 to 30 minutes, I’ll say that.
“You’re siting there with somebody in your lap, and you’re not sure they’re going to come to.”
The 37-year-old who took the brunt of the strike was having seizures when they arrived. DeAgano said everyone in the group tried to stay calm, and kept talking to the victims to keep their eyes open.
“You have to try not to panic. All panic does is cause more turmoil,” DeAgano said. “You need to keep that person’s full attention. Ask them questions that they are asked on a daily basis. Can you count to ten? Ask their mom and dad’s name. We kept asking him, ‘What’s the name of your kids? How old are your kids?’
“The key thing is not to freak out when they say, ‘I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my arms.’ The nerves are shot - they just got hit by lightning. It takes time, but as we learned, it does come back.”
Miraculously, both men not only survived the ordeal, but were released from the hospital that night and are well on their way to recovery.
The younger man had lingering concussion-like symptoms, and experienced vertigo and nausea for several days, but is fine now, LeBlanc said.
The 37-year-old who took the hit at the motor went back to work last week.
“His burns are healing,” LeBlanc said. “He does still have some vertigo but he is much better.
“Everybody that saw anything to do with this said he’s lucky to be alive. It’s fairly miraculous, truthfully.”
LeBlanc wanted to thank DeAgano, the St. Bernard Fire Department and the Campo’s for all of their assistance that morning, and said he decided to share the story of the lightning strike so other hunters would be more cautious with the weather.
“Even when it doesn’t look bad, it can get bad quick,” he said.
He also urged everyone to wear a life jacket, as well as a kill switch with a tiller-handled boat.
“The boat was still running, and he normally always had the kill switch attached,” LeBlanc said. “But because they were dealing with decoys at the time, he didn’t.”
A national sales manager for an equipment company, LeBlanc said he also would be more cautious in the weather after the ordeal.
But as an avid hunter who hunted about 45 days this season, he said he would probably go out again with the small line of thunderstorms they saw on radar that morning.
“I went hunting the very next day. That’s what they would have wanted me to do, and that’s what I would have wanted them to do if the roles were reversed,” he said.
DeAgano said he hoped more people would take first responder training after hearing about the accident, but he didn’t want it to deter people from enjoying the outdoors.
“I hunted with my son the very next weekend. It’s a fluke accident, but there are ways it can be prevented,” he said. “Stay seated in your vessel when you see thunder and lightning. Anchor your boat, and sit in the marsh or go to your blind. Get out of the vessel if you can.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you, but one day it might.”