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Prayer service for lightning strike victim
Prayer service for lightning strike victim: Scenes from a prayer service for Jesse Watlington at the McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers. Watlington was struck by lightning Wednesday and is in critical condition at Tampa General Hospital.
Jesse Watlington / Special to news-press.com
Pastor Richard Powell of McGregor Baptist Church talks about the lightning strike that hit Southwest Florida Christian middle school football player Jesse Watlington. SFCA has canceled all athletic events for the weekend. There will be a prayer service tonight at McGregor Baptist Church for students and church members to pray for Watlington's recovery. / AMANDA INSCORE/THE NEWS-PRESS

How schools handle lightning

• Florida High School Athletic Association: Guidelines call for recognition, management and prevention. Recognition: Any time lightning flashes can be seen or thunder heard, the risk is already present. Management: If lightning is present, fields and stadiums must be evacuated. It is recommended to wait 30 minutes until after the last flash is witnessed or thunder is heard before returning. Any subsequent lightning or thunder after the start of the 30-minute count should reset the clock to zero. Prevention: Develop plans, including that for evacuations, in the event of lightning. More information is available at fhsaa.org.
• Lee County School District: High schools use hand-held detectors for outdoor athletic events. Many coaches and athletic directors have downloaded the CoachSmart phone application to use in conjunction with the handheld devices. About a month ago, the district began researching permanent lightning detection systems and the potential for future installment. As for the hand-held devices, the Thunderbolt Lightning Detector costs about $500.
• Collier County Schools: All schools use the Thor Guard Lightning Prediction System. Thirty-three have the primary system and the remainder (25) operate off a remote slave unit linked to a primary system of a nearby school. The primary units cost about $10,000 which includes the unit, all alarms and strobes and sensor array. The remotes are less expensive but still have the alarm and strobe and communicate via radio frequency to the master. In addition to the installation costs, the school district pays about $9,800 per year for a technician to visit and test every system twice per year and perform needed maintenance. Officials can track system performance via computer as storms move through the county and there is strong correlation between storm events and their alarm status.

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As an 11-year-old boy lay in intensive care at Tampa General Hospital on Thursday, hundreds of his friends and classmates gathered to pray for a miracle.

Jesse Watlington, a sixth-grader at Southwest Florida Christian Academy, was struck by lightning as he took the field for football practice Wednesday. He did not have a pulse and was not breathing when staff members started CPR, according to a Fort Myers Police Department report.

Watlington remained in critical condition at Tampa General Hospital on Thursday, according to Richard Powell, senior pastor of the McGregor Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the boy’s school. His condition has not changed since his initial transport to Gulf Coast Medical Center, and he has no surgeries scheduled at this time.

“They’re just seeing how well his body can naturally respond to the shock of the lightning strike,” Powell said. “Right now we’re just holding our breath, praying like crazy.”

Thursday evening, more than 200 people gathered at McGregor Baptist Church to give Watlington and his family the one thing they have asked from the community — prayer. When Powell gave the word, half the congregation flocked to the front of the worship room and lowered themselves to the ground. Students with bowed heads clustered tearfully together. Parents leaned on one another for support. One small boy, a friend of Watlington’s, was prostrate on the ground with several comforting hands resting on his back.

As silence filled the room, all that could be heard were the murmurs of whispered prayers for the 11-year-old’s recovery.

The situation is especially hard on Watlington’s middle school peers, many of whom witnessed him fall on the field, Powell said.

“We’ve got middle school children saying they will never set foot on that field again,” he said. “This is an enormously traumatic event.”

The Fort Myers Police Department released the 911 call Thursday. In the recording, a panicked school staff member tells an operator what happened, and then yells for everyone to stay under the roof.

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The school has canceled or postponed most activities, including athletic events.

Watlington’s family and friends, as well as a pastor from the church and the school’s varsity football coach, have been praying in the Tampa General Hospital waiting room. The family declined comment, using Powell as its spokesman.

“This is a lake of fire that no parent ever wants to swim in,” Powell said.

Powell said there was no way of knowing students were in danger when they headed onto the football field Wednesday afternoon. The lightning came from a clear, blue sky and coaches had a lightning detector outside at the time of the strike. He said he was unsure of the type of device.

“This is no fault of our coaches,” Powell said. “They went beyond the call of duty, as they always do. At this time, we feel our preparedness and care of our kids is beyond the call of duty. All of the systems that we have were in place.”

On Wednesday, Powell told The News-Press the school does not have a lightning detector. He attributed the discrepancy to a miscommunication.

Support and prayers for Watlington’s recovery have poured from the community since yesterday, Powell said. A sixth-grade teacher from a local Christian school had her class write compassionate letters to Watlington and his family. The church has also received calls of support from members and strangers alike — one came from a missionary in Brazil.

Radio station Way-FM, on 100.5 and 89.5 FM, held on-air prayers for Watlington all day Thursday.

Watlington is a bright young man committed to his studies and his faith, Powell said. He has been at the school a few years, and his parents have attended the church for a few months.

Ceia Collins, who was Watlington’s neighbor, described the boy as a sweet, polite young man. The family moved out of their home in Laguna Lakes — a gated community off Gladiolus Drive — a few months ago, she said.

Gwen Walsh, another former neighbor, described Watlington as a typical middle school boy who likes to have friends over and have a good time. She remembers seeing him having fun with some Silly String on the sidewalk in front of their homes one day.

“I can’t believe that,” Walsh said, near tears, when told of Watlington’s condition. “I feel so bad. Oh dear. Oh God.”

As Thursday’s service came to a close, Powell encouraged those in attendance to keep Watlington and his family in their hearts. He ended the service with one word.

“Pray.”

Staff reporter Dennis Culver contributed to this story.

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