Rescuers in a helicopter checking the slopes of the Giewont peak for missing persons and anyone who might need help in the Tatra Mountains in Poland, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Three people are still missing in southern Poland after a deadly thunderstorm with multiple lightning strikes hit the Tatra Mountains, killing five people and injuring over 150. (AP Photo/Bartlomiej Jurecki)

Polish official: Deadly lightning storm like terror attack

August 23, 2019 - 9:49 am

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Polish emergency official on Friday likened the deadly lightning storm over the Tatra Mountains that killed at least five people and injured more than 150 to a terror attack in terms of the number of casualties and some of the wounds.

Survivors described horrific scenes in which climbers were blown off slopes, suffered severe trauma injuries after being hit by rocks or couldn't move in the initial aftermath of the storm. Two people remain missing after multiple lightning strikes hit the Giewont peak and other places in the Tatras on Thursday afternoon, authorities said.

The thunderstorm, which witnesses said came suddenly on a day that began with clear weather, produced an unimaginable emergency in the popular trekking region, said Jan Krzysztof, head of the TOPR Tatra emergency service.

"This is a situation that can be compared to a terrorist attack," Krzysztof said. "A large group of random people has been hit. Many people, including children. Burnt, with broken legs, wounds all over their bodies."

Local prosecutors have opened an investigation to determine if anyone was responsible for allowing a situation in which lives were lost. Authorities in the Tatra resort town of Zakopane announced three days of mourning and all entertainment events were canceled.

Survivors described scenes of people falling off the slopes or being hit by rocks split by lightning strikes.

Mariusz Brodzinski, who was on his first trip to the Tatras with his wife, said he saw a young woman who was walking in front of his wife on the Giewont mountain suddenly fall off the slope after lightning struck the metal chains they were holding on to.

"This woman is dead," Brodzinski told Polish broadcaster TVN24. "My wife slid and suffered a fractured pelvis and injured head. I have a burnt foot. It felt like it was scorching."

He said that for 15 minutes after the strike his hands felt numb and he had no strength to get to his wife. It was over an hour before the first helicopter came, he said.

"We were some six, seven meters (yards) from a crevasse," he said.

"We are grateful to God that we survived," Brodzinski said. "It was our first trip into the mountains and was supposed to be unforgettable. And it sure will be."

Krzysztof said rescuers on Friday were checking the slopes of the popular Giewont peak, which rises 1,894 meters (6,214 feet) high, for two people who haven't returned to their accommodations following the storm and couldn't be reached by their families. Three others thought missing were reached Friday morning.

Officials said the lightning storm killed four people in Poland, including two children aged 10 and 14, and two women, and a Czech tourist in neighboring Slovakia. In addition, more than 150 people caught in the storm were treated for burns, fractures and heart problems at the hospital in Zakopane. Officials said 34 people remained hospitalized Friday in Zakopane, Krakow and other locations.

Krzysztof said it was a "disaster on the Giewont" and that the major mountain rescue operation that involved five helicopters and about 180 rescuers and firefighters "went beyond" any scenario that his team had ever faced.

But rescuers also said that many people ignored the signs of the approaching storm and continued up the peak, instead of hurrying down to safety.

The Tatras, part of the Carpathian mountain range, are the highest mountains in Poland and in Slovakia and attract tourists from near and far with scenic lakes and peaks that soar to 2,655 meters (8,710 feet). Giewont is a highly frequented destination, often with long lines waiting to get to the top, but the metal chains that were installed there to aid the climbers and a huge metal cross atop attract lighting, making it very dangerous during thunderstorms.

Thursday's lightning strikes were the worst tragedy in the Tatras since August 1937, when lighting killed four people on Giewont.

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