, Newburyport, MA

June 4, 2007

Lightning strikes police officer, son in Georgetown

By Dan Atkinson , Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN - A freak storm tore through the area Saturday, striking an off-duty police officer and his son with a bolt of lightning, toppling trees and tipping canoers.

Groveland Sgt. Jeffrey Gillen and his son, Matthew, 13, were taken to Anna Jaques Hospital and then to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston after the early evening storm. They were struck by lightning just after 7 p.m. in Georgetown, according to police. Gillen is a Georgetown resident.

Jeffrey Gillen was discharged yesterday, according to a Brigham and Women's spokeswoman. Because of his age, no information was available about Matthew.

Canoeists capsize

The Gillens were not the only people injured as a result of the storm. The Coast Guard rescued four canoeists who had capsized in the Merrimack River off Joppa Flats just before 7 p.m. because of the strong winds. They were treated at Anna Jaques for hypothermia and released.

After one canoe tipped over in the storm, the second group of canoeists attempted to right it and wound up tipping over themselves. The canoeists were not wearing life jackets or warm clothing, Petty Officer Etta Smith said.

"They got pretty chilly pretty quick," Smith said.

The Coast Guard did not have the names of the four.

Tree on house in Georgetown

For some Georgetown residents, the damage to their houses spoke to the storm's strength.

Leah Gymziak thinks the tree through her house proves the point.

"We could see through the window in the basement, the trees were swaying, the sky was pitch black, there were huge balls of hail," said Charles Street resident Leah Gymziak. "When it stopped raining we went outside, and we saw a pine tree on our house."

Saturday's storm brought tornado warnings from the National Weather Service, although officials at the Taunton office said there were no reports of a tornado actually touching down.

While the northern Newburyport area did not see strong wind gusts, according to Ray Whitley, a local weather watcher for the National Weather Service, the Georgetown-Haverhill area was hit hard.

Even a warning of tornadoes is unusual for the area, Whitley said.

"I've never seen a tornado warning before, and I've lived here since 1972," he said.

Gymziak said her family is usually unruffled by storms. But as the skies rapidly darkened shortly after 7 p.m., her father ordered everyone in the house into the basement. They listened to the storm howling around them, but didn't realize the tree had fallen until water started leaking into the basement.

The 150-foot-tall pine tree on the right side of the house had crashed through a window, letting in the rain and spraying glass all over Gymziak's parents' bedroom. The tree did not damage the house's walls, but did something potentially even more dangerous - it moved the entire house off its foundation.

"It totally shifted the whole structure," Gymziak said. "The guys getting rid of the tree said they hadn't seen anything like that."

The family has been in the house for 35 years, and this is their first insurance claim, Gymziak said. They had recently put on a new roof and new siding.

"We were counting our blessings and then this happens," Gymziak said. "But everyone's OK, that's what's important."

For the time being, the family will stay with Gymziak's sister in Haverhill. They'll need to tear up the water-damaged ceiling, and they spent most of yesterday removing the tree from the roof. Gymziak said she did not know how to deal with the shifted foundation, but she and her parents know living in the house now is not an option.

"It's not safe to stay there," she said.

Microburst in Rowley, Ipswich, Topsfield

A microburst caused major headaches on Saturday as trees tumbled to the ground, taking down power lines and blocking roads in the process.

The National Weather Service reported gusts of wind between 75 and 80 mph during the microburst, a severe downdraft inside a thunderstorm, in parts of Topsfield, Ipswich and Rowley, according to longtime Salem State College meteorology professor Arthur Francis.

"The air hits the ground and spreads out, and those winds that go out of it are strong winds," Francis said.

Route 1 had to be closed from Ipswich Road to the Ipswich town line after falling trees took down power lines and snapped three utility poles along the road.

Route 1 and five other roads were closed for much of Saturday night and reopened yesterday morning. Route 1 reopened at 8:30 a.m.

Staff writer Bruno Matarazzo contributed to this report.