“I remember reading an article and thinking, ‘There’s no way,'” she said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday. “But then I looked at pictures of the older couple.”
Officials say Escudero-Kontostathis had become huddled with the couple — Donna Mueller, 75, and James Mueller, 76 — and Brooks A. Lambertson, 29, a Los Angeles city bank official, when a storm rolled in on Aug. 4. But Escudero-Kontostathis said her last memory was talking to the Muellers, who were in DC earlier that day celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary.
Strangers huddled under a tree. Then lightning struck.
Escudero-Kontostathis approached them as part of her work with the International Rescue Committee, scouring 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 Green Bay Packers stadium, Escudero-Kontostathis recalled.
She recommended that they visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Planet Word while in DC?
Before she knew it, Escudero-Kontostathis said, she lied in a hospital bed, with IVs puncturing her body. A picture of the Muellers was now blinking at her iPad. They were murdered, according to the article. Somehow she was still alive.
In the days since lightning struck Lafayette Square, Escudero-Kontostathis has learned to live with second-degree burns on her left side that feel like “10,000 grains of sand are trying to get through every pore at once.” But the guilt of surviving the lightning strike that killed the Muellers and Lambertson haunts her.
Escudero-Kontostathis said she can’t remember the minutes before the strike, but worries she motioned the Muellers to join her under a tree to seek shelter from the rain.
“My biggest fear is that I have recalled them,” she said. “If so, I couldn’t live with myself. My biggest fear is that it’s because I wanted to say hello one more time before they left.”
She feels similar pains about Lambertson, a vice president at City National Bank. Escudero-Kontostathis said she can’t remember interacting with him that day, but has since learned that they share common 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 coincidentally brought together: three foreigners and Escudero-Kontostathis, who stood together not far from the president’s house.
It belonged to Escudero-Kontostathis 28th birthday, and it was almost time for her birthday dinner at the Hamilton when the storm came up.
Before 6pm that day, she refused a call from her sister-in-law and nieces wishing her a happy birthday.
“At work Rn @thewhitehouse! Dinner tonight!” she wrote from her Apple Watch.
She then grabbed her phone and took two pictures of the sky, with dark clouds approaching.
“I was feeling 105° all day (literally based on my weather app) and now the thunder is coming,” she texted her sister-in-law, adding a laughing crying emoji.
About an hour later, she and the three others sheltered from the pouring rain under a tall, leafy tree about 100 feet (30 meters) from the Andrew Jackson statue, officials said. Experts recorded a lightning flash in the area when six separate power surges reached 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 what it sounded like.”
All four have been taken to a hospital. Authorities soon revealed that the Muellers had been murdered. So did Lambertson, whose father described him as “probably the best person I know.”
Escudero-Kontostathis’s heart also stopped, when her husband was 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, in addition to law enforcement.
It is unclear why only Escudero-Kontostathis survived.
Numerous storms with frequent lightning flashed across the region that Thursday night, with temperatures in the mid-to-90s earlier in the day.
Experts warn that standing under a tree under such conditions can be dangerous. When a tree is struck by an electrical charge, moisture and sap readily conduct the electricity and carry it to the surrounding ground, according to a National Weather Service web page on lightning science.
If the electricity hit the tree first, experts said, hundreds of millions of volts would have passed through the tree before traveling in and over the bodies of those below it.
What happens when lightning strikes – and how do you stay safe?
Escudero-Kontostathis, whose time teaching English in the Middle East inspired her to help those affected by war and poverty, thinks her shoes could have saved her. That day, she wore sandals with thick rubber soles, which she believes absorbed some of the electricity.
She wore those same platform shoes back to Lafayette Square Monday, when “Good Morning America” filmed her reunion with the nurses she believes saved her life.
Under a blue sky, Escudero-Kontostathis stood with a walker in the grassy park outside the White House. Jessee Bonty and Nolan Haggard, the Texas emergency room nurses who performed CPR on those injured in the explosion, walked over to her.
“Hello, I’m Jessee, can I give you a hug?” said Bonty, who two weeks ago had felt Escudero-Kontostathis hand grip hers before losing his pulse on two separate occasions.
‘Hi, I’m Amber. Yes, please,” replied Escudero-Kontostathis, before wrapping her bandaged arms around the woman who rescued her.
That evening, Escudero-Kontostathis and her husband went to the Hamilton for the birthday dinner she’d 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.