Victim of D.C. area storm, a local environmentalist, 'lived what he believed'

Severe thunderstorms felled trees and power lines across much of the Washington area Sunday afternoon, killing Four people and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Seven families who tend the Watkins Pond Community Garden in Rockville gathered Sunday for a picnic and double celebration: to mark their second summer harvest and to thank Carl Henn, the local environmental activist credited with creating their beloved garden.

When dark clouds blew in without warning about 3:15 p.m., the group ran from the King Farm Park picnic area to its cars. Five minutes into the roaring wind and pelting rain and hail, one picnicgoer said, a bright bolt of lightning filled the sky, followed instantly by deafening thunder.

It was only when everyone had emerged after the fast-moving storm passed a few minutes later that they saw Henn lying beneath a towering tree that had a fresh, eight-foot-long gash where lightning had apparently struck, said Dennis McCarthy of Rockville. McCarthy said he and another picnicgoer started CPR on Henn while others frantically called 911 on cellphones, only to hear busy signals.

"It was a nice afternoon that just suddenly turned into hell," McCarthy said.

Henn, 48, died Tuesday at Washington Hospital Center, where his brother said his heart, damaged by the lightning strike, gave out. His wife, two daughters, parents and three siblings were at his bedside.

He became the fourth victim of the severe storm that also killed 6-year-old Eric Lawson when a tree limb fell on him in Sterling; Warren D. Smith, 63, of Annapolis, who was electrocuted on a watercraft from a lightning strike near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; and Michelle Humanick, 44, of College Park, whose minivan was crushed by a tree.

The storm felled trees, snarled traffic and knocked out electricity to more than 300,000 homes and businesses across the Washington region; 29,000 remained without power Wednesday.

Friends, neighbors and Rockville officials said Montgomery County lost in Henn one of its most passionate environmental activists. He is credited with expanding the city's community gardens and persuading the City Council in 2007 to save fuel and promote recycling by cutting garbage collection from twice to once a week.

"He lived what he believed," McCarthy said. "He rode a bike so he wouldn't pollute. He used a push lawn mower. Everything the man did was principled."

Henn ran unsuccessfully for the City Council three times, most recently last year, but friends said he didn't harbor political ambitions as much as a tireless desire to help. When plows left six-foot mounds of snow in his Rockville neighborhood last winter, Henn grabbed his pickax and persuaded neighbors to join him in clearing the sidewalks. He was president of the Hungerford Civic Association.

"He was just constantly trying to do things to make the community better," said Art Stigile, a neighbor who worked with Henn as the civic association's vice president.

Henn worked at the National Institutes of Health for 20 years and spent the past 11 in procurement, an NIH spokesman said. But friends said his family and environmental causes were what consumed him.

He was a fixture at City Council meetings, urging leaders to forgo road construction in favor of improving paths for cyclists and pedestrians and to pursue fuel sources beyond petroleum. Friends said his dry wit kept his message more lighthearted than preachy.

Henn was known for riding his bike to work and wherever he could. He had ridden two miles to the picnic Sunday, McCarthy said, and everyone assumed he had run to someone's car for shelter.

"It physically pained him when he had to use his car," said his younger brother, Kenna Henn of Austin.

Burt Hall, Rockville's recreation and parks director, said Henn had urged the city to add more community gardens so residents could walk or ride bikes to their plots. He helped officials identify public land for potential planting and organized nearby residents to get the gardens approved and set up, Hall said, and he helped establish three community gardens -- two in King Farm and one in Fallsgrove -- in the past seven years.

"We wouldn't have these additional gardens without Carl's leadership," Hall said.

Henn is survived by his wife, Carol, and two daughters, Jessica, 21, and Allison, 16.

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