Fayetteville, N.C. — Fort Bragg Spc. James Van Dorn says it was nothing more than instinct that compelled him to help a woman and toddler struck by lighting during a Friday afternoon storm.
It was just after 4 p.m. when lightning hit Spc. Rosa V. Sanchez and her 18-month-old son, Alex, outside a TJ Maxx store on Morganton Road in Fayetteville.
Van Dorn, of the 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, said he had pulled his car up to the store’s entrance and was waiting for his wife when he heard the lightning strike.
"I'd compare it to an IED, improvised explosive device," Van Dorn said. "Soldiers hear them all the time when in Iraq. It is a way of life really when you are over there. It sounded like that right here in Fayetteville.”
The 26-year-old paratrooper said he then saw a frantic woman running by and screaming. He then saw her lying on the ground.
"Well, when I was about 15 to 10 feet away from her is when I saw she was on fire. So I immediately took off my shirt and when I got up to her (and) that is when I put her out. Her hair was on fire. Her shirt was on fire,” Van Dorn said.
Van Dorn said he then noticed a toddler’s legs sticking out from beneath the woman.
"I rolled her off the child, and as soon as I saw his face, he was kind of burned on his side and on his back. But other than that, he was looking at me wide-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Van Dorn said.
The 21-year-old mother wasn't breathing and her heartbeat was erratic, “very irregular – off the chain, off the hook, really,” Van Dorn said.
Van Dorn said he then performed CPR, just as he had learned in extensive Army combat lifesaver training.
"We are trained to keep going until we can't go anymore,” Van Dorn said.
On the third compression, the mother took a breath. Despite his lifesaving actions, Van Dorn said he doesn’t consider himself hero. He said he just did what he could until the medics arrived.
"There was really no thinking about it. It is pretty much what we are trained to do. It is instinct,” Van Dorn said.
An umbrella that Sanchez was holding first made contact with the lightning. The electricity then traveled through her and into the child, Scott Iverson, a fire battalion commander, said Friday.
Van Dorn said Sanchez was the only person in the parking lot he noticed with an umbrella.
“There were really so many other things that lightning could have struck, but she just happened to be the one with the umbrella,” he said.
The victims were being treated at the North Carolina Jaycees Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Sanchez was in critical condition Monday, while her son's condition was stable.
"This is an unfortunate and tragic incident," Col. Billy J. Buckner, public affairs officer for XVIII Airborne Corps, said Monday afternoon in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Sanchez. The command is doing everything possible to support our soldier."
Sanchez is a personnel clerk assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 330th Transportation Battalion, 82nd Sustainment Brigade.