Two people were hospitalized Thursday night and two have since died after a lightning strike in Lafayette Park, just north of the White House, left them with life-threatening injuries.
“[It was] massive,” one witness to the lightning strike told the Washington Post. “It shook the whole area. Literally like a bomb went off, that’s how it sounded.”
"We are saddened by the tragic loss of life after the lightning strike in Lafayette Park," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said today. "Our hearts are with the families who lost loved ones, and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives."
Officials received reports of the event just before 7 pm on Thursday, during what Vito Maggiolo, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, called “significant storm conditions.”
“When we arrived, we found a total of four patients,” he said in a statement published to Twitter late on Thursday. “All four were suffering from critical life-threatening injuries. We were able to quickly treat and transport all four patients and they were all taken to area hospitals.”
The four victims were apparently standing in a grove of trees when the lightning hit, Maggiolo told reporters in a press briefing.
“Trees are not safe places,” he pointed out. “Anybody that goes to seek shelter under a tree, that’s a very dangerous place to be.”
That’s because lightning looks for the path of least resistance to the ground – or anything connected to the ground. Because trees are often the tallest thing in the area, they are more likely to be hit by a bolt.
“[Lightning] strikes can be up to a million volts, generating temperatures up to 20,000℃,” explained Gregory Moore, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Melbourne’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences.
“For a tree unlucky enough to be hit by one of these events, it’s all over. The sap inside the tree instantly turns to steam, which can cause it to literally explode, or lose great strips of wood and bark,” he wrote in a February 2022 article for The Conversation. “It would be an excellent idea not to be under a tree when this happens.”
There are four ways people can be struck by lightning: direct strike, side flash (near an object that is hit by lightning), step potential (a discharge of lighting in the ground), and touch potential (when part of the body makes contact with a stricken object while also still touching the ground).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, the chances of being struck by lightning in any given year is less than one in a million – and even for those unlucky few who do get zapped, there’s almost a nine in ten chance of survival.
In this case, Maggiolo said, officers from both the US Secret Service Uniformed Division as well as the United States Park Police were nearby and able to immediately respond to the incident.
“We want to thank them for immediately responding to the scene and rendering aid to the four injured individuals,” he said, later adding that “the ability to immediately provide lifesaving care is critical to the outcome.”
Lightning storms weren’t the only extreme weather event shaking the capital last night: the National Weather Service warned of wind gusts up to nearly 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) and hailstones the size of quarters. At the same time, heat advisories were issued as temperatures reached up to the mid-90s in Fahrenheit – and heat indexes, which account for humidity, got even higher.
With these hot, humid, conditions, thunderstorms were likely to follow. Chris Vagasky, an analyst for Vaisala, which operates a national lightning network, told the Post there was a “six stroke flash near the White House that hit the same point on the ground.” That means six individual surges of electricity hit the same point on the ground within half a second, he explained.
It is currently unknown why the people were in the park during the storm, or whether they know each other. However, fire officials said Park Police would be investigating the incident.
This article has been updated to report two of the four people have since been confirmed dead.