Police said among those who died were Donna Mueller, 75, and James Mueller, 76, a couple from Wisconsin who were tourists in the town, according to a family member. The other person killed was a 29-year-old man, police said when they announced his death on Friday afternoon. His identity has not been released pending notification of relatives.
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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 are with the families who lost loved ones. dear ones, and we pray for those who are 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 adult children and also had grandchildren and great-grandchildren, according to the parent, who declined to be named. 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 large objects, experts warn that taking shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm is very dangerous. When a tree is hit by electrical charge, the tree’s moisture and sap easily conduct the electricity, carrying it to the ground around the tree, according to a National Weather Service web page on the science of lightning.
“When lightning strikes a tree or other object, much of the energy travels outward from the strike into and along the surface of the ground,” the webpage states. “It’s called ground current. Anyone outdoors near a lightning strike is potentially the victim of a ground current.
The lightning was triggered by a severe thunderstorm that swept through the district just before 7 p.m. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for much of the Beltway area between 6.30pm and 7.15pm, warning of the threat of damaging gusty winds. up to 60 mph and quarter sized hail.
Chris Vagasky, an analyst with Vaisala, which operates a nationwide lightning detection network, said in a post that there was a “6-shot flash near the White House that hit the same spot on the ground” at 6:49 p.m. He explained that this means six individual electrical surges hit the same point on the ground in half a second.
Vagasky tweeted that between 2010 and 2021, “289 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occurred within one mile of the White House, an average of 24 per year”.
“This incident underscores the need for people to travel to a safe location whenever a thunderstorm occurs in the area,” John Jensenius, safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council, said in an email. “Even a distant rumble of thunder should serve as a warning to immediately step inside an important building or hard-topped metal.”
Lightning kills 23 people in the United States in an average year. Deaths from Thursday’s strike in the district brought the number of lightning strikes in 2022 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 others 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 seriously injured and other spectators injured when lightning struck RFK Stadium during a concert.
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July and August are the peak months for lightning in the United States.
Numerous thunderstorms, containing frequent lightning, erupted in the region Thursday evening after temperatures soared into the upper mid-90s earlier in the day, prompting a heat advisory. Heat indices, a measure of how hot it feels with humidity taken into account, reached 100 to 110 degrees.
Thunderstorms are again forecast for the Washington area on Friday and through 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.