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Survivors Recall Day Lightning Struck Hazeltine

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CHASKA, Minn. -- Their memories come rushing back more frequently now that the PGA is back at Hazeltine, where they nearly lost their lives taking shelter from the rain 11 years ago.
 
They never will forget June 13, 1991. A lightning strike on the first day of the U.S. Open killed spectator Billy Fadell and left five others hospitalized after they stood under a tree during a driving rainstorm on the 16th fairway.
 
With a major tournament returning to Minnesota for the first time since 1991, at the same course no less, the survivors are thinking even more about what happened.
 
'The one thing that still haunts me is that the Fadell boy was only 27,' said survivor Ray Gavin, a retired sales manager from Mendota Heights, Minn. 'I was just one week shy of my 50th birthday. Why was he killed and not me?'
 
Glenn Engstrom, who lives in the St. Paul area, also survived the strike.
 
'I just thank God every day that I'm still around,' Engstrom said. 'It was a really sad deal. That kind of stuff shouldn't happen. This is a festive-type event.'
 
Engstrom, 47, will be at the tournament this weekend with tickets courtesy of Hazeltine. He watched practice Monday and went with some friends to the spot where the lightning bolt hit.
 
The tree was cut down shortly after the accident, but it's not something that fades easily from memory.
 
Gavin and John Hannahan, who on Friday plan to make their first visit to the course since that weekend, were facing east on the ridge overlooking Lake Hazeltine and the 16th fairway when Gavin was startled by the sight of a blimp suddenly veering away from them.
 
'I was like, 'What the heck is going on?'' Gavin said. 'Then John told me to look over my shoulder. It was like night and day -- I've never seen anything like it. The sky was green. It was like someone was pouring water out of a pail.'
 
'Before we knew it,' Hannahan said, 'it was an all-out, belly-washing thunderstorm.'
 
They were nowhere near their car, and without a VIP pass to allow them entry into one of the hospitality tents, the pair found a small tree to stand under. They quickly were joined by four others who were also lured to Hazeltine's most famous hole. Gavin and Hannahan noticed that fans in the bleachers were getting soaked, afraid of losing their prime seats.
 
'How stupid,' they thought, turning to watch people huddle under large evergreens nearby.
 
'I'm like, 'Those dummies -- they're going to get hit,'' Gavin said. 'Well, guess who got hit?''
 
Because the willow tree's leaves retain water more easily, it turned into a lightning rod.
 
The six people fell like dominoes.
 
Fadell, standing between Gavin and Hannahan, died before he reached the hospital. Hannahan's heart stopped. The others were temporarily paralyzed.
 
'The next thing I knew, somebody was trying to put me on a gurney,' said Gavin, who didn't find out until more than five hours later in the hospital that Hannahan was OK.
 
Engstrom recalled seeing a reprinted newspaper photograph that showed the men lying on the ground after the strike. Engstrom's hands were covering his face.
 
'I'm sure I was crying,' Engstrom said.
 
Since that summer, severe weather-detection systems have been upgraded at PGA events. Still, it's up to fans to heed the warnings.
 
'If lightning would've hit 50 yards to the northeast, it would've killed 100 people,' said Hannahan, 54. 'It's nothing to fool with. It's not worth a spot in the bleachers.'
 
Gavin and Hannahan, whose families gather each year to commemorate their brush with death, went to last summer's U.S. Open at Southern Hills Golf Club in Tulsa, Okla., as VIP guests of the U.S. Golf Association, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.
 
Engstrom used to take pictures of lightning during storms, and he even won a contest at work for one of his photos. 'Since then, I've kind of put those pictures away,' Engstrom said.
 
He still golfs, but it's tough to do when the horizon turns stormy.
 
'My game suffers big time,' Engstrom said, recalling a particularly difficult outing a few years ago. 'I just wanted to get in the clubhouse. I was running out and hitting shots ahead of the group, going along the tree line. I didn't want to be out in the open.'
 
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