First came an immense flash of bright white light, then a sound like a cannon exploding feet away.
Four backpackers’ thoughts quickly turned to the youngest member of their group, Nicholas Torchia, who was just behind them on their high Sierra backpack trip through the John Muir Wilderness of eastern Fresno County.
“He’s been hit,” said a man who dashed by the hikers, running toward nearby Muir Trail Ranch on July 30 to get help.
Torchia was just up the trail, lying beside a tree struck by lightning along the Sallie Keyes Cutoff, between the John Muir and Florence Lake trails. The electricity also traveled through the 37-year-old Fresno man.
A pastor and his friend, who ran for help, reached Torchia first, within 20 seconds of the lightning strike around 1:25 p.m. Torchia told them he was badly injured. The pastor, Andy Cornett, took his hand and assured him they were getting help.
“He thanked me and asked me to straighten out his legs,” Cornett later told his family. “That was the last he spoke.”
“I want Nick’s family to know he was never alone,” Cornett said, “that we were with him, comforting him, talking to him, praying for him.”
‘NO ONE MADE A MISTAKE’ HIKING BACK FROM JOHN MUIR TRAIL IN SIERRA
Torchia; his uncles Jeff, Tom and Bill Holbrook; and friend Terry McCurdy were returning from a backpack trip to Sallie Keyes Lake in the John Muir Wilderness when Torchia was hit.
It was sunny when the group started their descent from the lake that morning. They had planned to camp at Muir Trail Ranch that night and then catch a boat ride across Florence Lake the next day to return home. The group started their trip together earlier that week.
Torchia and his uncles had been working to complete the entire 211-mile John Muir Trail over the past 10 or so years via annual backpack trips together.
Torchia’s uncles said he was struck when he was just seconds behind them on the trail, after the group stopped briefly to put on rain ponchos.
“He was the last to put on a rain jacket and go catch up with Bill, but he didn’t,” his mother Kathy Torchia said.
His family and Cornett aren’t sure how close Torchia was to the tree when it was hit, or how long he was near it. Jeff Holbrook thinks his nephew might have been adjusting some of his gear or eating a snack when he was struck.
Tom Holbrook described the incident as a freak accident from a sudden storm.
“No one made a mistake. … We dealt with extreme conditions before,” he said.
The lightning bolt that took their nephew’s life was the only one Jeff and Tom said they saw that day in that area, estimated to be around 8,000 feet in elevation. Cornett said other lightning strikes seemed much further away.
A lieutenant in charge of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team said it appeared Torchia could have been hit by the first lightning strike of the storm in the region that day.
“It was terrifying,” Cornett said of the lightning that narrowly missed him. “It was brilliant white, and the sound was felt as much as heard.”
The lightning blew items out of Torchia’s pockets, ripped off some of his clothes, and tore bark off the tree that was struck. Jeff said its force moved his own body forward a couple inches.
There’s only been 14 other fatalities and 72 injuries from lightning in California since 1950, according to data through this spring from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. The National Weather Service reported that only about 10% of people struck by lightning die from the voltage.
PASTOR AT LIGHTNING STRIKE WAS A COMFORT: ‘HE LOVED GOD’S WORD’
Torchia’s family said it was poignant that a pastor would be the first to reach him after he was struck. Torchia’s Christian faith was a big part of his life.
“He was amazing. He’d call and say, ‘Mom, are you reading your Bible?’ He was that kind of influence on all of us,” Kathy Torchia said. “He loved God’s word. He loved nature.”
His mom described him as a “seeker” and “faithful follower of Christ.”
Torchia is remembered as exceedingly kind, with a genuine concern and sensitivity to the feelings of others that sometimes caused him pain. One of his two brothers, Ben Torchia of Clovis, said he sees his brother’s passing as God deciding to free his “good soul” from that pain.
“He just had this struggle internally – some things that are probably pretty simple for you or me were not simple for him,” his brother said. “He had a struggle that people in America owned houses while people in third-world countries didn’t. He had a tough time accepting the status quo. He could never get over things like that.”
Torchia was a small group leader at Re:generation Recovery, a support and recovery program at The Well Community Church in Fresno.
“He devoted every Monday night for nine months to walking a group of guys, myself included, through the messiness of life in a biblically-based program,” participant Drew Atkins said. “My life was impacted heavily during that time. I believe God used him in amazing ways.”
A memorial service for Torchia has been tentatively set for 1 p.m. Aug. 28 at The Well’s Fig Garden campus, 4545 N. Palm Ave., Fresno.
Cornett said the experience of caring for Torchia in his final moments made him feel “profoundly humbled at how vulnerable life is.”
“Obviously you realize that when you’re in the mountains and outdoors,” Cornett said, “but it’s true of our given life at any given moment, and it causes you to reflect.”
NICHOLAS TORCHIA: OUTDOOR LOVER WITH A BIG HEART
Torchia was one of six children and had an 11-year-old daughter, Makayla, who lives in South Africa with her mother.
He graduated from Ridgeview High School in Bakersfield and joined the Navy when he was 18 years old, serving for almost six years. He also previously worked as a driver for Community Food Bank and senior citizens in Clovis.
Torchia most recently was a student at Clovis Community College. He hoped to become a psychologist and counselor, his mom said.
Douglas Houston, interim chancellor of State Center Community College District, recalled Torchia as an “outstanding student” in a recent email to staff, encouraging condolences for his family.
His mother said he loved hiking, backpacking, swimming, rock climbing and cycling, and had many other talents.
“I call him the Renaissance man,” Kathy Torchia said. “He could do anything.”
Jeff Holbrook said he and his brothers taught Torchia about backpacking when he was growing up, but that in recent years their nephew’s outdoor skills surpassed theirs’ “ten times” over.
Torchia was the youngest on last week’s backpack trip. The other four in his group are in their 60s.
“He was like our safety chain,” Jeff Holbrooksaid. “We were all getting older and he was still viable and young and he looked after us, and we always felt safe with him by our side.”
Torchia made a separate trip up to Sallie Keyes Lake the week before the trip with his uncles to haul a tent and other gear up the mountain so they wouldn’t have to carry as much. Among the gear was a cushion and hammock he insisted they use.
The family said the compassionate Torchia also had a way of infusing fun into even the simplest of tasks.
“What a great spirit this young man had,” Tom Holbrook said of his nephew. “We loved him.”
Friend Pete Debruynkops, who went on previous John Muir Trail backpack trips with Torchia, said Torchia loved being in the wilderness, and that his friend’s adventurous spirit earned him the hiking nickname of “Stray Dog” because he was always straying off the trail to check things out.
He called him an “amazing, tremendously supportive human being” and a “very solid gift to the world.”
“He was a guy who would do anything for you. … He just looked out for people,” Debruynkops said.
He added that his friend was also a “very handsome guy.”
“And I don’t think he even realized it, but the guy was just a stud,” Debruynkops said. “He was, but he was kind of self-effacing. I don’t think he ever really had the confidence that he should have had. I don’t know why.”
BenTorchiasaid his brother’s bravery and skill at sports growing up made him seem less like a little brother and more of an equal, although Torchia was two years younger in school.
“He was so talented at everything he attempted,” Ben Torchia said.
Woodworking was another of Torchia’s hobbies and talents. His brother plans to make a box for his ashes out of manzanita wood that Torchia collected.
“I would say the one thing he would want, even though people may have suffering in this life, he would want them to have joy in their hearts and to know God,” Ben Torchia said. “Not just happiness, but pure joy.”
Jeff Holbrook said he recently experienced some joy thinking of Torchia.
Jeff Holbrook’s phone started playing music when he and others were trying to revive Torchia on the trail. It took him a while to realize the sound was coming from his pocket because he said his phone rarely plays music, even when he tries.
He pulled it out and hit pause. The song was “Neon Pegasus” by Parry Gripp, about a mythical, divine, winged horse soaring over troubles. It made him think of his nephew and a herd of horses that ran by them on the trail earlier in their trip.
Some of the lyrics: “Unbreak your heart, Neon Pegasus, and go climbing through the stars, out there with your dreams, your sparkly dreams. … Never again to be lonely, never again to be without a home. … Soaring over it all, high up in the clouds.”
JeffHolbrookaccidentally dropped his phone in the water later at Muir Trail Ranch. When it turned on the next day, the song was still paused on Neon Pegasus.
He played it later and sobbed. He said it was a beautiful release of “just joy.” He felt like his nephew was telling him, “I’m in a beautiful place and I’ve got wings and I’m flying, and I’m happy as can be.”