By: Sharon Aron Baron
Three years after losing their 11-year-old son to a lightning strike, the parents have donated a detection system to Coral Springs Christian Academy in hope of preventing another senseless death.
Chuck and Alda Watlington gifted the WeatherBug system in memory of Jesse, who died Oct. 3, 2012, after lightning struck him on a playing field at Southwest Florida Christian Academy in Fort Myers.
“Our son was a very special little boy,” said his father Chuck Watlington. “He was so plugged into God. He was a generous, giving child. He would want us to do this.”
The $10,000 system, which has been installed atop a building near the playing fields, is called the Total Lightning Networks (TLN), which has more than 1,200 lightning sensors.
“We know where lighting is striking at any given moment in any country, in any location,” said Sam Bergesen, manager for WeatherBug Schools Program.
Besides lighting detection, the system can predict heavy downfalls, wind shear and tornadoes.
“If lightning strikes within 10 miles of this campus, the siren will go off, alerting everyone on the practice field, going to and from the buildings, including all staff, parents and children. Once there has been no lightening detected for 30 minutes in this area, then it gives three short blasts, which is an all-clear siren,” said Watlington, whose daughter, 17 year-old Carolina, once attended Coral Springs Christian Academy.
Since the day that changed their lives, the Watlington’s have made it their mission to donate WeatherBug systems to Florida schools of all faiths through their foundation named after their son. Coral Springs Christian Academy is one of fifty schools with at least 300 students and a sports team to receive one. Other South Florida schools include: Calvary Christian Academy, Highlands Christian Academy, Westminster Christian School, Jupiter Christian School and The King’s Academy.
Since 2010, 158 people died of lightning strikes in the United States and 23 of those were under 18, according to the National Weather Service.
On that tragic day, Jesse was practicing with his middle school football team. “Everything the school could have done wrong that day, they did,” Watlington said. “They didn’t have an AED (automated external defibrillator); it was locked up. Their lightning detector, which was a portable unit the size of a car battery, was not brought to the field that day. The kids were alone, unsupervised, with no coaches out there, not even within eyesight of the nearest building.”
The coaches didn’t know CPR, so they couldn’t assist Jesse for ten minutes. However, his pulse returned as soon as paramedics hooked him up to a defibrillator when he was airlifted to the hospital.
“So if they would have used the school’s defibrillator, which was located 1,100 yards away and locked up, they could have saved his life.”
Doctors delivered the devastating news that Jesse wasn’t expected to live another 12 hours. After reviewing brain scans, X-rays and other tests, as well as interviewing the police and coaches, doctors told the family that Jesse’s CPR had been delayed by eight to 10 minutes, resulting in a lack of pulse for 30 minutes. Therefore, Jesse was brain dead.
Four days later, Jesse was taken off life support and died in the arms of his mother, father and sister.
In 2013, the parents sued the school and owner McGregor Baptist Church and won an undisclosed amount of money, which they used to found the Jesse Watlington Memorial Foundation.
State law requires public school coaches to be trained and certified in CPR. The foundation wants to change this to require all teachers and coaches in private schools to become proficient in CPR and the use of AEDs and require they have defibrillators handy at every practice and game. The family has hired attorneys to lobby lawmakers in Tallahassee to make this a law for all schools.
“The biggest thing is providing a safe, fun environment for all of our athletes — male, female, it doesn’t matter. This thing is as undiscriminating as it gets,” said Andy Hotz, athletic director for Coral Springs Christian Academy. “If the alarm goes off, our teams get inside. Having our coaches being able to focus on practices and games and not having to worry about checking the weather takes the burden off of them and allows them to do their job better.”
“The WeatherBug won’t save a life,” said Alda Watlington, who added it’s up to the coaches and staff in charge of the children. “The WeatherBug will provide them with enough information to keep the kids safe and takes the responsibility off their shoulders.”
After the first free year of monitoring, the schools must pay an annual fee of $1,500 for the service.
However, Holz believes the price is worth it. “It’s so precise, so specific. If I’m in my office, I can see when it goes off or it’s all clear,” he said. “Also, the coaches get email alerts. This really takes any guesswork out of the game.”
For more information visit the Jesse Watlington Memorial Foundation.