Sorn San, 9, huddled with his mother in the rain on a boat being steered by a 17-year-old neighbor when lightning struck them on June 9.
“I saw something black fly toward us,” San said, remembering the last moments before he fell unconscious and the two others were killed on Boeung Tumpon lake, within sight of their home.
San, bearing a black scar on his neck from the strike, spoke this week under a funeral marquee during preparations for a ceremony for his late mother in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district.
Lightning instantly killed San’s mother, Tith Kim, 45, along with Sean Vibol, 17, who was knocked into the water, according to Kim’s younger brother Tith Pros, 32, a witness on a nearby boat.
Mr Pros said he and his wife fearfully lay down in their own boat as lightning came down out of the sky. “Afterwards, when we couldn’t see them move on the boat, we knew that they had died.”
The couple brought the bodies of Tith Kim and her son to land by boat, then covered the bodies in mud and managed to resuscitate the boy.
The victims, who were returning home from selling morning glory when lightning struck, are among the 86 dead and 72 injured by lightning so far this year.
With lightning casualties soaring, the people most vulnerable to strikes outdoors and in wooden shacks often remain unsure of how to protect themselves.
The National Committee for Disaster Management and Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology try to spread public awareness about how to avoid being struck, said Keo Vy, deputy director of the NCDM’s information system. “But in my view, only about 30 to 40 percent of citizens are aware of lightning precautions.”
Fatalities doubled in the first five months of 2011 compared to the same period last year, according to Mr Vy, who said the increase was likely due to earlier-than-usual rains. NCDM statistics also point to a rise in deaths caused by lightning, from 47 in 2007 to 114 last year. Mr Vy speculated that climate change may have led to the increase.
But Ron Holle, a US-based research meteorologist, said the increase might just reflect better reporting. Cambodia only began compiling statistics about four years ago.
Nevertheless, Mr Holle said he believed the country had one of the highest fatality rates in the world. This is largely due to homes being made of natural materials and people frequently working outside to grow crops in fields and watery rice paddies, he said.
“A lightning strike to a building with substantial grounded code-compliant metal conducting materials is quite safe for people inside, while a direct strike to a straw hut is disastrous,” he added, noting that lightning deaths in the US, Western Europe and Japan had fallen tenfold since 1900.
A 2010 informal paper by Mr Holle used a rough annual estimate of 100 annual deaths in Vietnam and 100 to 150 deaths in Malaysia, based on local research and news reports. There are an estimated 24,000 deaths and 240,000 injuries caused by lightning each year worldwide, he concluded.
Vladimir Rakov, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in lightning and lightning protection, said it was possible climate change could lead to higher temperatures and more lightning, but he stressed that casualties were declining in industrialized countries. Urbanization, education and use of CPR generally leads to a decline, Mr Rakov said.
Cambodia’s death toll “for such a relatively small country is very high, even in view of the Southeast Asia being a lightning hot spot.”
The US, with a population of over 300 million, has an average of 47 lightning-related deaths per year and ten times as many injuries, he said. In contrast, lightning injured fewer people than it killed in Cambodia this year, according to the NCDM. While Mr Rakov pointed to high underreporting, he also said that fast treatment saved lives. “Immediately administered CPR makes a huge difference.”
But the families of Tith Kim and Sean Vibol said this week that they did not know how to protect themselves from lightning or help lightning victims, and nobody had ever come to teach them.
Vibol’s mother, Poeung Pich, held a photograph of her eldest son in one hand and pointed with the other to the spot where he died. “If it weren’t for my two daughters, I would wish I had died too because I loved him so much,” Ms Pich said, close to tears.