LONG POND, Pa. – Brian Mattson and Tom Deacher climbed into their truck and got set to leave saturated Pocono Raceway. That’s when the lightning bolt slammed into a tent canopy just a couple of rows away from where they parked, shooting off sparks like a Roman candle.
The NASCAR fans jumped out and found two men on the ground. Deacher and others tried to administer CPR until paramedics arrived.
“When the tent collapsed, I knew it wasn’t right,” Deacher said.
The lightning strike was one of two that hit just outside the track Sunday during a confusing and tragic end to a shortened day of racing. One of the bolts killed 41-year-old Brian Zimmerman, and nine others were injured.
A day later, Pocono officials said they warned fans to take cover when the weather turned nasty – even as stock cars continued to race around the track – while some fans insisted there was no warning.
Others took to Twitter and Facebook to say the announcements in the grandstands and camping areas to seek refuge in their cars came too late, after the worst of the rain hit the track.
“Mother Nature’s sneaky,” track president Brandon Igdalsky said. “You don’t know what she’s going to do.”
Zimmerman, of nearby Moosic, died as he stood near his car with the back hatch open in the raceway parking lot, according to the Monroe County coroner. A woman who answered the phone at Zimmerman’s home declined comment. Deacher wasn’t sure if Zimmerman was the man he had tried to help.
One of the other injured fans had been listed Sunday night in critical condition but was upgraded to stable, Igdalsky said. The remaining eight people had been treated and released from the hospital.
“The individuals that were affected have spoken to the hospital folks, and they’re in good spirits,” Igdalsky said. “It’s just a freak incident. They said they had a great day and, boom, this happened to us.”
Track officials said the crowd of 85,000 was advised several times to take cover over public address systems and social media when storms threatened the area near the end of the Pennsylvania 400. They were checking their logs for details of those announcements.
But some posted on the raceway’s Facebook page that they never heard the weather warnings. One fan noted in a Twitter message to The Associated Press that the races are so loud you can’t hear people near you, let alone the public address system.
NASCAR spokesman Dave Higdon said Monday officials are reviewing how the track carried out its emergency procedures. He cautioned against rushing to judgment.
“Anytime something like this happens, we make sure we look at it again and see if there’s anything we should have done different,” Higdon said. “It’s never a good day for us when someone passes and people are hurt.”
A severe storm warning was issued for the area at 4:12 p.m. and NASCAR called the race at 4:54 p.m. Igdalsky said he will review how many warnings the track issued to fans over that time.
“We’re trying to figure out exactly when those (warnings) happened,” he said. “Some fans are saying they heard it early. Some are saying they didn’t hear it early. So we’re going through all our logs and records to see when that went through.”
But some wonder if NASCAR should have halted the race if it knew lightning and thunderstorms were approaching, even if the track was still dry.
That responsibility ultimately rests with the tracks, Higdon said.
“They need to ensure the safety of the fans up to our expectations for them,” he said. “We need to ensure the safety of the competitors and those who are part of the traveling team that goes to each track.”
Higdon said he was confident Pocono officials had taken the appropriate steps.