HAMMONTON, N.J. -- A freakish coincidence has left a New Jersey town grieving and shaken, as lightning took the life of a man who lost his father the same way 48 years ago.
Services were held Thursday for Stephen Rooney, 54, of Hammonton, N.J., who died last Friday from injuries suffered July 3 at a party hosted by relatives living next door.
Cousin Scott Digerolamo, 38, remembers how it happened -- because he too was hospitalized after a thunderbolt suddenly scorched a tree.
Most of the partygoers were inside the house, because of lightning in the area and a little rain, but a handful of men stayed outside to smoke cigars.
Often, over the years, Stephen Rooney would say that lightning couldn't strike the family twice, and that day said something like, "Don't worry, you're safe out here with me," Digerolamo said.
When Rooney was 5, his father, George, was struck by lightning and killed while fishing in a boat near Fortescue, N.J., a town on the Delaware Bay, Digerolamo said.
"Steven couldn't get his cigar lit, so he kind of ducked under the tree," the cousin said.
Suddenly, "it was like a bomb went off ... this huge explosion," with "a bright fireball that came away from the tree," he said.
He felt a blast, like some kind of electronic pulse, rather any electrical zapping or burning, and remembers being thrown back a few feet. He next realized he was in an ambulance.
He recovered, though he still has to undergo tests.
Rooney was a special person, the kind of guy everyone liked immediately, and many people will never forget him for all the favors he did, Digerolamo said.
Besides, he was family to perhaps a hundred people in town, because a half-century ago, Alfonso Digerolamo Sr. came from Philadelphia and bought enough land for relatives to build their own homes and join him.
Perhaps a thousand people attended the viewing Wednesday night, with several hundred at the funeral Thursday at St. Anthony of Padua Church, Digerolamo said.
"He was probably the closest thing to a saint," he said. "... They lost count at like a dozen godchildren."
The coincidence, in turn, compounded the sense of loss.
"It's crazy, it's bizarre, it's surreal," Digerolamo said. "We can't even fathom what's the odds of a woman losing her husband and her son to lightning of all things."
Rooney's mother, Lucille Ricciutti, was there that day, and so were many kids.
"The family's going through a lot. ... He was the hub of the family," Digerolamo said.
"It's a town tragedy, there's no doubt about it. The world is a lesser place because he's not it, but it's a better place because he was here."
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