All day long, the tall, leafy tree had been a source of shade and comfort for Amber Escudero-Kontostathis.
Amid 90-some degree heat, she’d spent hours canvassing tourists in front of the White House for donations to help refugees in Ukraine, her family said. As she finished her shift on Thursday last week, a storm gathered overhead, thickening with clouds, rain and thunder.
That Thursday happened to be her 28th birthday, her family said. So while Amber waited for her husband to pick her up for a celebratory dinner, she sought shelter once again from the same tree, huddling with three others under its outstretched branches, according to her family and authorities.
Three people dead after lightning strike Thursday near White House
One was Brooks Lambertson, a young and rising bank vice president from Los Angeles. There was Donna Mueller, 75, a retired teacher, and her husband James Mueller, 76, who came from Wisconsin to Washington to celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary. And there was Amber, a young woman from California whose travels in the Middle East teaching English had kindled a desire to help those stricken by war and poverty in that region.
They were strangers brought to that precise spot on the east side of Lafayette Square, at that precise moment for different reasons — business, vacation, a passion to help.
Just before 7 p.m., it was at that spot — under a leafy tree about 100 feet from a statue of President Andrew Jackson — that lightning struck.
Experts recorded a lightning flash in the area as six individual surges of electricity that hit the same point in the space of half a second. If the electricity struck the tree first, experts said, it would have sent hundreds of millions of volts coursing through it before passing into and over the bodies of those gathered beneath it.
“It shook the whole area,” an eyewitness later recounted. “Literally like a bomb went off, that’s how it sounded.”
The strike left all four grievously wounded. Secret Service and U.S. Park Police — who keep the park in front of the White House under constant patrol — ran to help.
On Friday morning, police announced the elderly couple from Wisconsin had died. Later that night, the banker from Los Angeles also passed away, police said.
Amber would be the sole survivor.
What happens when lightning strikes — and how to stay safe
The lightning strike stopped Amber’s heart, said her brother Robert F. Escudero. Two nurses, who happened to be visiting the White House on vacation and saw the Secret Service running to help, immediately started giving her CPR and managed to restore her pulse, he said.
The lightning caused severe burns along the left side of her body and arm, her family said. That’s the side her bag was on, carrying the iPad she used to sign people up for refugee donations.
Her parents rushed to Washington from California, and her mother has documented her fight to recover on Facebook. The lightning strike left Amber struggling at first to breathe, wrote her mother, Julie Escudero. But by Friday, nurses were able to take her off the ventilator.
The lightning also damaged her short-term memory. She was scared and confused about what happened to her. “We definitely don’t want her to remember the incident right now,” her mother wrote on Facebook. But every time she wakes up, her mother wrote, she asks what happened to her, is she going to die, and will she be able to walk? Her family said one thing she has been particularly worried about is her work fundraising for refugees.
She had majored in international studies in college and traveled to Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, according to her brother and her work profile. She spent a year teaching English in Jordan and soon after began fundraising for nonprofits. She started working in Washington last year for a group called Threshold Giving and focused especially on fundraising for the International Rescue Committee, a global relief agency.
“The first thing she told me when we FaceTimed is, ‘I need to get back to work on Saturday,’” Robert Escudero said. “She’s worried about raising money for the refugee kids. She asked me, ‘Who’s going to get the money for them if I’m not out there?’”
A friend started a GoFundMe page to raise money for her medical bills. So her brother said he promised Amber he’d work with Threshold Giving in the coming days to also create a way for people who learn about her survival story to donate to refugees.
The one thing her family has not yet broached with her is the fate of the others who were with her that night under the tree.
“She is starting to realize there were others and she wants to know how they are doing and what she did wrong,” her mother said in a Facebook post on Sunday. “She cares so much for others, it will be hard for her.”
On Sunday, many signs of the fatal lightning strike were still visible at Lafayette Square.
A tree bore streaks of charred bark, cracks and a large gash in the main trunk where the wood remained warped like a bruise. Folks passing through Lafayette Square paused at the tree to stare at the scars.
One of them was Cal Vargas, a childhood friend of Lambertson, who died. He brought a wreath and bouquet of white flowers to lay at the base of the tree. Vargas and Lambertson had been friends since kindergarten and grew up together in Folsom, Calif., where they shared a passion for sports and the Sacramento Kings.
“He was an amazing individual,” Vargas said quietly. “Always had a smile on his face, always looked at the bright side of things.”
Earlier on the day the lightning struck, Lambertson, 29, had arrived in Washington on a business trip from Los Angeles. He was passing time before a dinner reservation when he got caught in the storm, Vargas said.
In a phone interview, Lambertson’s father, whom The Washington Post is not identifying by name to protect his privacy, said his son was “probably the best human being that I know.” He said his son’s kindness, generosity and humility “showed up in everything he did, in all his interactions with people.”
He worked at City National Bank as a vice president managing sponsorships for the company. He had done marketing for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, and graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, according to a statement from the bank.
The elderly Wisconsin couple who also died that day were celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary, family members said.
Donna Mueller, 75, and her husband, James Mueller, 76, had been high school sweethearts before marrying. James had owned a drywall business for decades while his wife worked as a teacher, according to one of their daughters-in-law, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy.
The couple lived in Janesville, Wis., about 70 miles west of Milwaukee, and had five grown children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “Both would do anything for their family and friends,” relatives said in a statement.
The odds of someone being killed by lightning are extremely rare. In the past decade, only an average of 23 people in the United States have died each year.
Multiple fatalities are even more rare. Before last week’s strike, the last time three people died in a single incident was more than 18 years ago on June 27, 2004, when three people in Georgia were struck under trees at Buford Dam Park, said John Jensenius, a specialist at the National Lightning Safety Council.
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 conduct the electricity, carrying it to the ground around the tree, experts say.
“When lightning strikes a tree, the charge doesn’t penetrate deep into the ground, but rather spreads out along the ground surface,” Jensenius said. “That makes the entire area around a tree dangerous, and anyone standing under or near a tree is vulnerable.”
For that and other reasons, Amber’s survival has felt miraculous, her family said. If it hadn’t happened in right in front of the White House where Secret Service agents are stationed. If the two nurses who revived her hadn’t been on vacation and seen what happened.
On Saturday night, Amber was finally able to take a few steps on her own, her family said. She was supposed to start a master’s program in international relations this fall at Johns Hopkins University — the latest step in her work trying to help refugees and those suffering abroad.
“She’s an amazing, strong-willed person. And she has such a heart for others,” her brother said. “So the goal now is to get her walking again by the time classes start in a few weeks.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.