This Thursday was his 28th birthday, his family said. So while Amber waited for her husband to pick her up for a celebratory dinner, she once again sought refuge against the same tree, huddled with three others under its outstretched branches, according to her family and authorities.
One was Brooks Lambertson, a rising young 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 trips to the Middle East to teach English had sparked the desire to help those affected by war and poverty in this region.
They were strangers brought to this exact location on the east side of Lafayette Square, at this exact time for different reasons – business, vacation, a passion for helping.
Just before 7 p.m. it was there – under a leafy tree about 100 feet from a statue of President Andrew Jackson – which lightning struck.
Experts would later record a strike in the region like six individual electrical surges that reached the same point in the space of half a second. If the electricity had hit the tree first, experts say, it would have sent hundreds of millions of volts through it before passing through the bodies of those who gathered below.
“It shook the whole area,” an eyewitness later recounted. “Literally like a bomb went off, that’s how it sounded.”
Strike left all four seriously injured. The Secret Service and the US Park Police – who keep the park in front of the White House under constant surveillance – raced to help.
On Friday morning, police announced that the elderly Wisconsin couple had died. Later that night, the Los Angeles banker also died, police said.
Amber would be the sole survivor.
Lightning stopped Amber’s heart, her brother Robert F. Escudero said. Two nurses, who were visiting the White House on vacation and saw the Secret Service running to help him, immediately began performing CPR on him and managed to restore his pulse, he said.
Lightning prevented her from walking and caused severe burns to the left side of her body and arm, her family said. It’s on the side of her bag, carrying the iPad she used to sign people up for refugee donations.
Her parents rushed to Washington from California and her mother documented her fight to recover on Facebook. The thunderbolt initially made Amber unable to breathe, her mother, Julie Escudero, wrote. But on Friday, nurses were able to remove her from the ventilator.
The lightning also damaged his short-term memory. She was scared and confused about what had happened to her. “We certainly don’t want her to remember the incident at this time,” her mother wrote on Facebook. But every time she wakes up, her mother writes, she asks what happened to her, will she die and will she be able to walk? His family said one thing that particularly worried him was his fundraising work for refugees.
She had majored in international studies in college and had 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 started fundraising for non-profit organizations. She started working in Washington last year for a group called Threshold Giving and has focused in particular on fundraising for the International Rescue Committee, a global relief agency.
“The first thing she said to me when we FaceTimed was, ‘I have to go back to work on Saturday,'” Robert Escudero said. “She is worried about raising funds for refugee children. She asked me, ‘Who’s going to get the money for them if I’m not there?’
A friend started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his medical bills. So her brother said he promised Amber that he would work with Threshold Giving in the coming days to also create a way for people who find out about her survival story to donate to refugees.
The only thing her family has yet to discuss with her is the fate of the others who were with her that night under the tree.
“She’s starting to realize 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 other people, it will be difficult for her.”
On Sunday, many signs of the fatal lightning strike were still visible in Lafayette Square.
One tree had streaks of charred bark, cracks, and a large gash in the main trunk where the wood remained twisted like a bruise. People passing by Lafayette Square stopped in front of the tree to look at the scars.
One of them was Cal Vargas, a childhood friend of Lambertson, who died. He brought a wreath and a bouquet of white flowers to place at the foot 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 person,” Vargas said calmly. “Always had a smile on his face, always looked on the bright side.”
Earlier on the day the lightning struck, Lambertson, 29, had arrived in Washington on a business trip from Los Angeles. He was spending time before a dinner reservation when he got caught up in the storm, Vargas said.
In a phone interview, Lambertson’s father, whom The Washington Post does not identify by name to protect his privacy, said his son was “probably the best human being I know.” He said his son’s kindness, generosity and humility “showed in everything he did, in all his interactions with people”.
He worked at City National Bank as vice president managing sponsorships for the company. He had done marketing for the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA, and graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, according to a bank statement.
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 getting married. 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 condition of anonymity to protect her privacy.
The couple lived in Janesville, Wis., 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 chances of a person being killed by lightning are extremely rare. Over the past decade, only an average of 23 people in the United States have died each year.
Multiple deaths are even rarer. 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 Bedford Dam State Park, a said John Jensenius, specialist at the National Lightning Safety Council.
Because lightning tends to strike large objects, experts warn that taking shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm is very dangerous. When a tree is hit by the electric charge, the tree’s moisture and sap easily conduct the electricity, carrying it to the ground around the tree, experts say.
“When lightning strikes a tree, the charge does not penetrate deep into the ground, but rather travels along the surface of the ground,” Jensenius said. “This makes the whole area around a tree dangerous, and anyone standing under or near a tree is vulnerable.”
For this and other reasons, Amber’s survival seemed miraculous, her family said. If it hadn’t happened right in front of the White House where Secret Service agents are stationed. If the two nurses who revived her weren’t on vacation and hadn’t seen what had 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 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.