Among those who died were Donna Mueller, 75, a retired teacher, and her husband, James Mueller, 76, who owned a drywall business for decades before retiring, according to one of their daughters-in-law, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy.
They were high school sweethearts before marrying and were in Washington as tourists, a vacation trip to mark their anniversary, the daughter-in-law said. She said they had no connection to the other people who were under the tree when the lightning hit.
The couple lived in Janesville, Wis., about 70 miles west of Milwaukee, and had five grown children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “Both would do anything for their family and friends,” their relatives said in a statement.
The other person killed was a 29-year-old man, police said in announcing his death Friday afternoon. His identity was withheld pending notification of relatives.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement: “We are saddened by the tragic loss of life after the lightning strike in Lafayette Park. Our hearts are with the families who lost loved ones, and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives.”
Because lightning tends to strike tall objects, experts warn that taking shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm is highly dangerous. When a tree is hit by the electrical charge, moisture and sap in the tree easily conducts the electricity, carrying it to the ground around the tree, according to a National Weather Service webpage on lightning science.
“When lightning strikes a tree or other object, much of the energy travels outward from the strike in and along the ground surface,” the webpage says. “This is known as the ground current. Anyone outside near a lightning strike is potentially a victim of ground current.”
The lightning was unleashed by a severe thunderstorm that swept across the District just before 7 p.m. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for much of the Beltway area between 6:30 and 7:15 p.m., cautioning of the threat of damaging wind gusts up to 60 mph and quarter-size hail.
Chris Vagasky, an analyst for Vaisala, which operates a national lightning detection network, said in a message that there was a “6 stroke flash near the White House that hit the same point on the ground” at 6:49 p.m. He explained that means six individual surges of electricity hit the same point on the ground within half a second.
Vagasky 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 any time a thunderstorm is in the area,” said John Jensenius, a safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council, in an email. “Even a distant rumble of thunder should serve as a warning to get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal immediately.”
Lightning kills 23 people in the United States in an average year. The fatalities from Thursday’s strike in the District, plus another in Baltimore County, boosted 2022’s lightning toll to 13 — exceeding 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 woman was critically injured and other spectators hurt when lightning struck RFK Stadium during a concert.
July and August are the peak months for lightning in the United States.
Numerous storms, containing frequent lightning, flared up in the region Thursday evening after temperatures soared into the mid- to upper 90s earlier in the day, prompting a heat advisory. Heat indexes, a measure of how hot it feels with humidity factored in, reached 100 to 110 degrees.
Thunderstorms are forecast for the Washington region again Friday and over the weekend. The Weather Service issued a flood watch for the area for Friday afternoon and evening.
This developing story has been updated.
Clarence Williams, Emily Davies and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.