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Was that really St. Elmo's Fire?

Just when we thought we'd heard it all... we get a call from someone like Christy, in Washington, D.C.

What's so interesting? Well, she saw something. Something that looked an awful lot like a ball of static, when she was cruising around town in her BMW 128i convertible.

Not only that, but it shocked her.

No kidding. And, to top it all off, Christy actually sounded fairly normal. (You can hear her call with Tom and Ray right here.

Tom and Ray thought it might be St. Elmo's Fire. But, what do they know about bizarre meteorological-electrical phenomenon? Right. Not very much, that's what.

So, we're throwing it out to you, our loyal Car Talk community. Take a listen to the call, then join the discussion right here. And thanks-- from all of us at Car Talk Plaza, Tom, Ray, and, of course, Christy in D.C.

Ball lightning, while weird, could explain Christy’s odd experience. More at:

For years DC has had a problem with exploding manhole covers. Apparently gas from some source (possibly Capitol Hill) builds up - a spark of inspiration occurs - and Ka-Boom - another manhole cover is launched. I wonder if it is possible that occasionally small leaks occur that are not quite enough to make the evening news - I mean even Fox probably wouldn’t cover a lit fart.

Mike Z. Shepherdstown, WV

NYC has experienced a number of weird incidents involving electric shock from sidewalk grates and other metal surfaces on sidewalks - in each case it appears that ConEd (our esteemed power supplier) may have been responsible for a live current coming in contact with the metal surface. In several incidents dogs were killed, and there may have been a human victim, though memory fails me a bit there.

At any rate, the first thing I thought of hearing the story was a possible live current somewhere below the car = or even some metal-on-metal action that caused a spark that arced up to the car. Not enough charge to kill (!) or even to damage the car, but enough to see and feel.

I do know that if I were the driver, I’d have stopped and examined the scene to see if something in or on the street would present a continuing problem.

I have heard that back in the 30s and 40s tanker trucks on the highway used to dangle a chain from the truck frame to the pavement to allow static electricity that built up as a consequence of the sloshing of the liquid in the tank to bleed off. Without such a chain it was possible for the driver to get a painful (or worse) shock when stepping out of the truck at a stop and, depending on the nature of the liquid in the tank, perhaps to spark an explosion or file. Eventually tanker truck tires were manufactured so as to conduct electricity and thus make the chain unnecessary. Is it possible that the caller, through some freak accident (perhaps she was carrying a tank of liquid in the trunk, or that the gas tank was faulty) built up enough static charge on the frame to cause a brief charge-relieving arc from the frame by her door to some particularly well grounded part of the road, such as a manhole cover??

Your local Harris Teeter is at:
Tysons Corner
8200 Crestwood Heights Dr
McLean, VA 22102

Never heard of that problem, but there must be tons of people who go shopping at Tysons Corner pretty regularly.

I like your suggestion that it was a firecracker.

Nothing metaphysical going on here…the phenomenon was the result of the collective negative energy from other D.C. area drivers directed at BMW owners exploding on target. Let’s see if that slows them down or makes them any less aggressive!

A yellowjacket.

I think someone lost their cell phone out their car window and Christy drove over it, igniting the lithium battery, and she got hit by one of the fragments.

The grocery store is just 4-1/2 miles from the CIA headquarters compound. 'Nuff said?

Yes, I’ve worked with electric utilities for several years, and the aforementioned manhole cover incidents are well-known to the utilities. Naturally, they try to keep them out of the news. I’d tend to believe Christie saw what she says she saw and felt what she felt, and that the local utility would deny the very possibility of such a thing–not to mention all responsibility for it.

About the lady named Christi on Saturday, May 9th show that got
shocked by an electric charge the size of a golf ball while driving
her BMW convertible. She?s not crazy!

You should have asked her,
#1 Was is cloudy or overcast that afternoon?
#2 What color was the ball?

Probabilities are that it was a lightening ball which is a very rare
natural occurrence. To quote Wikipedia; Ball lightning may be an
atmospheric electrical phenomenon, the physical nature of which is
still controversial. The term refers to reports of luminous, usually
spherical objects which vary from pea-sized to several meters in
diameter. It is sometimes associated with thunderstorms, but unlike
lightning flashes, which last only a fraction of a second, ball
lightning reportedly lasts many seconds. Depending on the report, ball
lightning can move upwards as well as downwards, sideways, or in odd
trajectories such as rocking from side to side like a falling leaf. It
can move with or against the wind, or simply hover, more or less
stationary in the air.

Sometimes it is described as being attracted to
houses, cars, persons, or other objects, but sometimes the balls are
reportedly repelled or are unaffected by objects. Some accounts claim
the balls have passed freely through solid masses, such as wood or
metal, without any effect on the ball or material, while other
accounts report damage to the material, such as melting or burning.
Some reports suggest an attraction to, or even an origination from
electric power lines.

Ball lightning has been reported in many different colors, sometimes
even transparent or translucent. It is sometimes said to contain
radial filaments or sparks while others are evenly lit, and some have
flames protruding from the ball surface. Its shape has been described
as spherical, oval, tear- drop, rod-like, and sometimes, but rarely,
even disk-like. It has sometimes been reported during thunderstorms,
sometimes issuing from a lightning flash, while sometimes it appears
during calm weather with no storms in the vicinity.
The balls have been reported to disperse in many different ways, such
as suddenly vanishing, gradually dissipating, absorption into an
object, “popping,” exploding loudly, or even exploding with force,
which is sometimes reported as damaging. Some accounts say the balls
are lethal, killing on contact, while other accounts claim that they
are harmless.

I have seen a large green one at a distance myself once on an overcast
day when I was 12, and was told by an air force officer not to go
anywhere near it after reporting what I thought was a UFO. I also read
a story about a guy in the city of San Francisco that had a large one
roll down the street, up onto his front porch and into his living room
where it blew a four foot hole in his floor and knocked him into the
other room. Pilots in World War II described an unusual phenomenon for which ball lightning has been suggested as an explanation. The pilots saw small balls of light moving in strange trajectories, which came to be referred to as foo fighters. British occultist Aleister Crowley also
reported witnessing what he referred to as "globular electricity"
during a thunderstorm on Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire in 1916. As
related in his Confessions, he was sheltered in a small cottage when
he "noticed, with what I can only describe as calm amazement, that a
dazzling globe of electric fire, apparently between six and twelve
inches in diameter, was stationary about six inches below and to the
right of my right knee. As I looked at it, it exploded with a sharp
report quite impossible to confuse with the continuous turmoil of the
lightning, thunder and hail, or that of the lashed water and smashed
wood which was creating a pandemonium outside the cottage. I felt a
very slight shock in the middle of my right hand, which was closer to
the globe than any other part of my body Anyway, Christi seems to have
had a pretty amazing encounter and should be thanking her lucky stars
or balls as it may be.

William Guthrie in Pensacola, FL.

Ball lightning is known to bounce around, and is a possibility IF 1) it wasn’t a very humid day, 2) a power line was paralleling the overpass Christy was about to drive under, 3) the power line ended in a transformer (this is where power overloads are most likely to form ball lightniing) and 4) there was a thunderstorm in the area or some other phenomenon that would creative a massive power surge on the line. I’m no expert in power transmission, but I do teach Physics for a living, and I understand that ball lightning, as scary as it may look and sound (like frying bacon, or so I’ve heard) is all voltage and very little amperage, or all bark and no bite, as it were. Still, even a small one such as the one Christy describes could give a person a nasty shock, not to mention the utter surprise.

Dear Tom and Ray, you had a caller on your
show this passed weekend (KPCC, Los Angeles,
CA, May 9,2009) named Christy. She said that
she had been hit by a ball of energy while
driving her BMW convertible. The incident
occured in Maclean, Virginia, home of the
CIA, and you guys didn’t pounce on that.
Either you’re losing your edge or there’s
some prohibition against raggin’ on the CIA.
Either way, I am greatly diappointed as a
loyal listner to your show for decades. jt

I’m with you on the CIA connection…jtorday

And it doesn’t have to be a metal connection. This kind of phenomena, stray voltage, has happened before, without the car, on concrete sidewalks in cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago. People’s pets (and at least one person) have actually been killed. Here’s an article about it:

Old electrical infrastructure decays, or a streetlight is moved, leaving a live wire underground, etc… The article makes it sound more likely in Northern cities, where the salt causes more deterioration of the electrical system underground. But it doesn’t seem at all impossible that there would be some loose wire accidentally touching a manhole cover or something. Was there construction going on near that overpass?

One possibility is ball lightning. In the sixties, My dad, a physicist who is an alum of Tom and Ray’s university, conducted a survey on ball lightning, with workers at the lab where he worked. Some employees responded that they had seen it and described what they observed. I think that I may have seen it during a thunderstorm. A lightning stroke hit a telephone pole tranformer or a wire connected to the transformer. Next a glowing ball moved a short distance along the wire then disappeared. It was very brief. My dad thought that ball lightning might be a plasma or a form of fusion. Anybody else have any ideas what ball lightning is?

Some butt head–literally–flicked the remains of a lit cigarette into the street. As Christy passed by it swept up from the street, kissed her on the cheek and blew away. She’s luck it hit her and didn’t land in the back seat.

This is an interesting survey of guesses. The fact that Christy sounds rational and that this is such an unusual whole-body experience with visual identification prior to the shock, points to unusual or unnatural phenomena, such as the yellow-jacket, debris like the cell-phone, cigarette or fire-cracker suggestions. However, there were no traces afterwards. Whatever it was was consumed. Each of those items would leave a trace. Unfortunately, she didn’t stop to rule out debris on the road.

Electrified manholes are out because the car would act as an insulator and it’s not a common experience of other motorists.

Since none of us have ever heard of another ball-lightning event like this, perhaps the most rational explanation is, unfortunately, the proximity to the CIA.

; > )

Professor John Amaral