Witnesses described hearing a boom and seeing light circle the tree, which was left with a huge scar of missing bark twisting around its trunk from top to bottom.
Small pieces of wood and bark and leaves exploded from the cottonwood, but firefighters on the scene later said no one was seriously hurt.
One man was knocked to the ground, apparently as he sat on one of the Plaza benches, when the lightning hit about 5:50 p.m. Fire Department Battalion Chief Carl Crook said the man had breathing problems but otherwise seemed fine.
Crook said another person was hurt when hit by some of the flying wood shrapnel but suffered nothing serious. No one was transported to the hospital.
“It sounded like a bomb – it just exploded,” said Jimmy Anaya of Santa Fe, who with his wife Patty was watching a band perform on the Plaza gazebo when the lightning hit.
“Wood was flying all over,” Patty Anaya said.
Jimmy showed a splinter of wood six or seven inches long he caught on the fly as the couple sat on a bench about 70 feet from the tree. They said people rushed to help the man who was knocked to the ground.
Lifelong residents of Santa Fe, they said they’d never heard of lightning hitting the Plaza.
Tarmo Sutt of Santa Fe was showing off his red 1966 Chevy Corvair about 25 feet from the cottonwood, on the Plaza’s northeast corner across the street from the Palace of the Governors.
Sutt said “wood pieces were everywhere” after he opened his eyes following the lightning’s boom. “People were just stunned to see what happened,” he said.
Sutt had photos of several people helping the man knocked to the ground get to his feet.
First responders cordoned off a “safe zone” around the tree with crime scene tape. A statement from the Fire Department said city parks personnel were on scene to assess the condition of the tree – which looked unlikely to survive and destined for quick removal.
By 7:30 p.m., things on the crowded Plaza were back to normal, except for the buzz about the lightning’s blast. A group of young girls in traditional outfits was performing Hispanic dances on the gazebo and strollers were checking out the impressive collection of classic cars parked on closed streets on all four sides of the Plaza.