Lightning strike survivor in DC had raised funds for refugees

All day long the tall, leafy tree was a source of shade and comfort to Amber Escudero-Kontostathis.

Her family said she spent hours asking tourists in front of the White House for donations for refugees in Ukraine in temperatures above 30 degrees. As she finished her shift on Thursday last week, a storm was gathering over her, gathering clouds, rain and thunder.

This Thursday happened to be her 28th birthday, her family said. While Amber waited for her husband to pick her up for a celebratory dinner, she again took shelter from the same tree and crouched under its outstretched branches with three others, according to her family and authorities.

Lightning struck three people near the White House on Thursday

One was Brooks Lambertson, a young and aspiring banking vice president from Los Angeles. There was Donna Mueller, 75, a retired teacher, and her husband James Mueller, 76, who came to Washington from Wisconsin to celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary. And there was Amber, a young woman from California whose travels to the Middle East teaching English sparked a desire to help those affected by war and poverty in that region.

They were strangers brought to that precise location on the east side of Lafayette Square at that very moment for various reasons – business, vacation, a passion to help.

Lightning struck just before 7 p.m. at the spot, under a leafy tree about 100 feet from a statue of President Andrew Jackson.

Experts recorded lightning in the area as six individual surges of electricity hitting the same point within half a second. If the electricity had hit the tree first, experts said, it would have sent hundreds of millions of volts through it before getting into and over the bodies of those gathered beneath.

“It shook the whole area,” said an eyewitness later. “Literally like a bomb went off, that’s what it sounded like.”

The strike left all four badly wounded. Secret Service and the US Park Police, who constantly patrol the park in front of the White House, rushed to help.

Police announced Friday morning that the elderly Wisconsin couple had died. Later that night, the Los Angeles banker also died, police said.

Amber would be the sole survivor.

What happens when lightning strikes – and how you can protect yourself

The lightning struck Amber’s heart stopped, said her brother Robert F. Escudero. Two nurses who happened to be visiting the White House while on vacation and saw the Secret Service rush to the rescue immediately began CPR and managed to restore their pulses, he said.

The lightning caused severe burns to the left side of her body and arm, her family said. This is the page her bag was on, with the iPad she used to sign up people for refugee donations.

Her parents rushed to Washington from California, and her mother has been documenting her struggle to recover on Facebook. The lightning strike initially made Amber breathe heavily, her mother Julie Escudero wrote. But on Friday, nurses were able to take her off the ventilator.

The flash also damaged her short-term memory. She was scared and confused about what had happened to her. “There is no way we want her to remember the incident now,” her mother wrote on Facebook. But every time she wakes up, her mother wrote, asking her what happened to her, will she die and will she be able to walk? Her family said one thing they are particularly concerned about is her work to raise funds for refugees.

She had majored in international studies in college and had traveled to Morocco and the United Arab Emirates to match her brother and her work profile. She spent a year teaching English in Jordan and soon after began raising funds for charities. She began working in Washington last year for a group called Threshold Giving, specifically focusing on fundraising for the International Rescue Committee, a global relief organization.

“The first thing she said to me when we FaceTimed was, ‘I have to go back to work on Saturday,'” said Robert Escudero. “She worries about raising money for the refugee children. She asked me, ‘Who gets the money for this 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 that in the coming days he would be working with Threshold Giving to also give people who hear about their survival story a way to donate to refugees.

What her family has not yet discussed with her is the fate of the others who were under the tree with her that night.

“She’s starting to realize that there were others, and she wants to know how they’re doing and what she did wrong,” her mother said in a Facebook post on Sunday. “She cares so much about others, it’s getting hard for her.”

On Sunday, many traces of the deadly lightning strike could still be seen in Lafayette Square.

One tree showed streaks of charred bark, cracks, and a large cut in the main trunk where the wood remained bent like a bruise. People passing Lafayette Square stopped by the tree and stared at the scars.

One of them was Cal Vargas, a childhood friend of Lambertson’s, who died. He brought a wreath and a bouquet of white flowers that were laid at the base of the tree. Vargas and Lambertson were friends since kindergarten and grew up together in Folsom, California, where they shared a passion for sports and the Sacramento Kings.

“He was an amazing man,” Vargas said softly. “Always had a smile on my face, always saw 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 spending the time in front of a dinner reservation when he was caught in the storm, Vargas said.

In a phone interview, Lambertson’s father, whom the Washington Post did not identify to protect his privacy, said his son was “probably the best person I know.” He said his son’s kindness, generosity and humility “showed in everything he did, in all of his interactions with people.”

He worked at City National Bank as Vice President and managed sponsorships for the company. According to a bank statement, he did marketing for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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 their marriage. James had owned a drywall business for decades while his wife worked as a teacher, according to one of her daughters-in-law, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her privacy.

The couple lived in Janesville, Wisconsin, about 70 miles west of Milwaukee, and had five adult children, ten grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. “Both would do anything for their family and friends,” relatives said in a statement.

The probability of someone being killed by lightning is extremely small. Over the past decade, an average of 23 people have died each year in the United States.

Multiple deaths are even rarer. Before last week’s strike, the last three people died in a single incident more than 18 years ago on June 27, 2004, when three people were struck under trees in Buford Dam Park in Georgia, said John Jensenius, a specialist with the National Council for lightning protection.

Since lightning tends to strike high objects, experts warn that sheltering 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 conduct the electricity and carry it to the ground around the tree, experts say.

“When lightning strikes a tree, the charge doesn’t penetrate deep into the ground but spreads along the ground surface,” Jensenius said. “That makes the entire area around a tree dangerous, and anyone standing under or near a tree is at risk.”

Lightning strikes were unleashed during a severe thunderstorm in Washington, DC before striking four people near the White House on August 4. (Video: Dave Staetter)

For this reason and others, Amber’s survival has felt like a miracle, her family said. If it hadn’t happened right in front of the White House, where Secret Service agents are stationed. If only the two nurses who resuscitated 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 due to start a masters program in international relations at Johns Hopkins University this fall – the latest step in her work, which seeks to help refugees and those suffering abroad.

“She is an amazing, strong-willed person. And she has such a heart for others,” her brother said. “The goal now is to have her walking again by the time classes start in a couple of weeks.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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