Lafayette Square lightning strike survivor shares her story

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When Amber Escudero-Kontostathis regained consciousness days after she was struck by lightning, she had a bad feeling that there were other victims.

So the 28-year-old grabbed the iPad beside her hospital bed and typed “Lightning Strike DC” into a Google search. She saw headlines that three people had died, and one person had survived during a storm near the White House. But it wasn’t until she saw two familiar faces in pictures that she grew distressed.

“I just remember reading an article and being like, ‘There is no way,’ ” she said in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post. “But then I looked at photos of the older couple.”

Officials say Escudero-Kontostathis had ended up huddled with the couple — Donna Mueller, 75, and James Mueller, 76 — and 29-year-old Brooks A. Lambertson, a bank official in town from Los Angeles, as a storm rolled in on Aug. 4. But Escudero-Kontostathis said her last memory was talking with the Muellers, who were in DC to celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary, earlier that day.

Strangers huddled together under a tree. Then lightning struck.

Escudero-Kontostathis approached them as part of her work with the International Rescue Committee, canvassing the area for donations to help refugees in Ukraine. They bonded over the Muellers’ home state of Wisconsin, where Escudero-Kontostathis had recently traveled for a family reunion, and the joys of visiting the Green Bay Packers stadium, Escudero-Kontostathis recalled.

She recommended that they check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Planet World while in DC

The next thing she knew, Escudero-Kontostathis said, she was lying in a hospital bed, with IVs puncturing her body. A picture of the Muellers was now flashing on her iPad. They were killed, the article said. Somehow, she was still alive.

In the days since lightning struck at Lafayette Square, Escudero-Kontostathis has learned to live with second-degree burns down her left side that feel like “10,000 grains of sand are trying to get through each pore at the same time.” But the guilt of surviving the lightning strike that killed the Muellers and Lambertson haunts her.

Escudero-Kontostathis said she cannot remember the minutes before the strike, but she worries that she moved for the Muellers to join her under a tree to seek shelter from the rain.

“My biggest fear is that I called back out to them,” she said. “I couldn’t live with myself if that’s the case. It’s my biggest fear, that it’s because I wanted to say ‘Hi’ one more time before they left.”

She feels similar pangs about Lambertson, a vice president at City National Bank. Escudero-Kontostathis said she does not recall interacting with him that day, but she has since learned that they share mutual friends from California.

“I have this guilt of, ‘Why did I make it?’ ” she said. “I try to calm myself with gratitude of, ‘Well, I did, so I’m not going to waste it.’ ”

The four victims of the lightning strike were brought together by happenstance—three out-of-towners and Escudero-Kontostathis, standing together not far from the president’s home.

It was Escudero-Kontostathis’s 28th birthday, and it was nearing time for her birthday dinner at the Hamilton when the storm rolled in.

Before 6 pm that day, she declined a call from her sister-in-law and nieces, who wanted to wish her a happy birthday.

“At work Rn @thewhitehouse! Dinnertonight tho!” she wrote from her Apple Watch.

She then got out her phone and took two pictures of the sky, with dark clouds approaching.

“Went from feeling like 105° all day (literally based on my weather app) and now here comes thunder,” she texted her sister-in-law, adding a laugh-crying emoji.

About an hour later, she and the three others ended up sheltering from the pouring rain under a tall, leafy tree about 100 feet from the statue of Andrew Jackson, officials have said. Experts recorded a lightning flash in the area as six individual surges of electricity hit the same point on the ground within half a second.

“It shook the whole area,” an eyewitness told The Post. “Literally like a bomb went off, that’s how it sounded.”

All four were taken to a hospital. Authorities soon revealed the Muellers had been killed. So, too, had Lambertson, whose dad described him as “probably the best human being I know.”

Escudero-Kontostathis’s heart also stopped, with her husband 12 minutes away from picking her up for dinner. But two nurses visiting the White House on vacation rushed to help. They performed CPR on all four victims, alongside law enforcement.

It is unclear why only Escudero-Kontostathis survived.

Numerous storms with frequent lightning flared in the region that Thursday evening, with temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s earlier in the day.

Experts warn that standing under a tree in such conditions can be dangerous. When a tree is hit by an electrical charge, moisture and sap easily conduct the electricity and carry it to the surrounding ground, according to a National Weather Service webpage on lightning science.

If the electricity struck the tree first, experts said, hundreds of millions of volts would have passed through the tree before traveling into and over the bodies of those beneath it.

What happens when lightning strikes — and how to stay safe

Escudero-Kontostathis, whose time teaching English in the Middle East inspired her to help those stricken by war and poverty, thinks her shoes might have helped save her. That day, she was wearing sandals with thick rubber soles, which she said she believes could have absorbed some of the electricity.

She wore those same platform shoes back to Lafayette Square on Monday, when “Good Morning America” filmed her reuniting with the nurses whom she credits with saving her life.

Under blue skies, Escudero-Kontostathis stood on the grassy park outside of the White House, using a walker. Jessee Bonty and Nolan Haggard, the emergency nurses from Texas who performed CPR on those injured in the blast, walked toward her.

“Hi, I’m Jessee, can I give you a hug?” said Bonty, who two weeks ago had felt Escudero-Kontostathis’s hand grip hers before losing her pulse on two separate occasions.

“Hi, I’m Amber. Yes, please,” Escudero-Kontostathis replied, before wrapping her bandaged arms around the woman who saved her.

That night, Escudero-Kontostathis and her husband went to the Hamilton for the birthday dinner she never had. They brought Bonty and Haggard with them.

“We’re literally besties now,” she said. “They will be in my life forever.”

William Wan contributed to this report.

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