Among those who died, police said, were Donna Mueller, 75, and James Mueller, 76, a Wisconsin couple who were tourists in town, according to a family member. The other person killed was a 29-year-old man, police said when announcing his death Friday afternoon. His identity was withheld pending notification of next of kin.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement: “We are saddened by the tragic loss of life following the lightning strike in Lafayette Park. Our hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones and we pray for those still fighting for their lives.”
A relative of the couple, reached Friday morning in Wisconsin, said family members were not yet ready to talk about the two in depth. The Muellers were the parents of five grown children and also had grandchildren and great-grandchildren, according to the relative, who declined to give her name. She said the couple were alone in Washington on vacation and had no connection to the other two people under the tree.
Because lightning tends to strike tall objects, experts warn that taking shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm is very dangerous. When a tree is struck by the electrical charge, moisture and sap in the tree easily conducts the electricity and transports it to the ground around the tree, according to a National Weather Service website about lightning science.
“When lightning strikes a tree or other object, much of the energy travels outward from the strike into and along the surface of the earth,” the website says. “This is known as the ground current. Anyone outside near a lightning strike is a potential victim of ground current.”
The lightning was triggered by a severe thunderstorm that swept across the district just before 1 p.m. 19.00. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for much of the Beltway area between 18.30 and 19.15 and warned of the threat of damaging gusts. up to 60 mph and quarter-sized hail.
Chris Vagasky, an analyst for Vaisala, which operates a national lightning detection network, said in a message that there was a “6 beat flash near the White House that hit the same point on the ground” at 18.49. He explained that this means six individual surges of electricity hit the same point on earth within half a second.
Vagabond tweeted that between 2010 and 2021 “289 cloud-to-ground flashes occurred within 1 mile of the White House, an average of 24 per year.”
“This incident underscores the need for people to get to a safe place whenever a thunderstorm is in the area,” John Jensenius, a safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council, said in an email. “Even distant thunder should serve as a warning to enter a substantial building or hard-topped metal immediately.”
Lightning kills 23 people in the United States in an average year. The deaths from Thursday’s strike in the district brought 2022’s lightning toll to 12 — surpassing last year’s total of 11. According to the Lightning Safety Council, this is the first fatal lightning incident in the district since 1991, when a teenager was killed and 10 other people were injured at St. Albans School in Northwest Washington.
In June 2020, two National Guardsmen were injured in a lightning strike near 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Washington. In 1998, a the woman was critically injured and other bystanders injured when lightning struck the RFK Stadium during a concert.
July and August are the peak months for lightning in the United States.
Numerous storms that included frequent lightning flared up in the region Thursday evening after temperatures rose into the mid to upper 90s earlier in the day, prompting a heat advisory. Heat index, a measure of how hot it feels with humidity factored in, reached 100 to 110 degrees.
Thunderstorms are expected for the Washington region again Friday and into the weekend. The weather service issued a flood watch for the area Friday afternoon and evening.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Clarence Williams, Emily Davies and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.