Police identified those who died as Donna Mueller, 75, and James Mueller, 76, a married couple from Wisconsin. The others remain in critical condition, police said.
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.”
A relative of the couple, reached Friday morning in Wisconsin, said family members were not yet prepared 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 relative, who declined to give her name. She said the couple were in Washington by themselves as tourists and had no connection to the two other people injured by lightning under the tree.
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. Thursday’s fatalities in the District boosted 2022’s lightning toll to 11 — matching the total from 2021. 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 is a developing story and will be updated.
Clarence Williams and Emily Davies contributed to this report.