A couple in their 70s died while celebrating their 56th anniversary and two other people were critically injured after lightning struck in a park near the White House during a storm Thursday evening, authorities said.
The lightning struck just before 7 p.m. in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, according to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
James Mueller, 76, and Donna Mueller, 75, both from Janesville, Wisconsin, died from their injuries, Brianna Burch, spokesperson for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, told USA TODAY. The two other victims, a man and a woman, remain in critical condition, she said.
“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life after the lightning strike in Lafayette Park,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “Our hearts are with the families who lost loved ones, and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives.”
All four were transported to hospitals with “critical life-threatening injuries,” D.C. Fire and EMS said in a tweet Thursday.
Spokesperson Vito Maggiolo said the lightning strike was witnessed by members of the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Park Police, who responded to the scene, D.C. Fire and EMS spokesperson Vito Maggiolo said.
Parts of the D.C. metro area were under a severe thunderstorm warning Thursday evening, according to the National Weather Service.
James and Donna Mueller were celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary with a trip to the nation’s capital when they died, said Michelle McNett, the couple’s niece. She remembered them as high school sweethearts who loved to dance and host gatherings for their close-knit family.
Donna was a retired teacher who worked part-time at a Janesville furniture store while Jim owned a drywall business, McNett said. They had five children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“Both would do anything for family or friends,” McNett said.
There have been nine other lightning fatalities in the U.S. this year, John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist for the National Lightning Safety Council, said in an email to reporters.
The incident is the first lightning fatality in Washington, D.C. since 1991 when one person was killed and 10 others were injured while they sheltered near a tree at a lacrosse game, he said.
Jensenius said people should find a safe place to shelter, such as a building, any time a thunderstorm is in their area. Sheltering under a tree can prove dangerous because “lightning tends to strike the tallest object in the immediate area, which is often a tree.”
Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY; Steven Martinez and Joe Taschler, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel