Audrius Kirvelaitis didn't hear thunder. He didn't even feel the lightning bolt that struck him as he began walking away from a tree near the Lincoln Memorial late Thursday afternoon.
He only recalls feeling as if he had slipped into a dream.
"I kept telling myself that I have to snap out of this or I'm going to die," said Kirvelaitis, 39, a State Department lawyer from South Riding and the father of 2-month-old twins.
About 20 minutes after being hit in the hip by the sudden bolt, Kirvelaitis awoke in an ambulance racing for George Washington University Hospital. In a telephone interview yesterday from his hospital room, he talked about his brush with death and said he is expected to make a full recovery.
Kirvelaitis is one of hundreds of people in the United States who are struck by lightning every year. Nearly 70 people nationwide die annually from lightning strikes, according to the National Weather Service. Weather officials warned the public to be vigilant and take basic safety precautions now that thunderstorm season has begun.
"Our basic message is that if you hear thunder, you need to be indoors," said Greg Romano, a spokesman for the Weather Service.
It was not yet raining when Kirvelaitis finished work on legal briefs at the State Department and began walking to his car, which was parked about a mile away in Virginia. As he reached the Lincoln Memorial and was about to cross the Memorial Bridge, it began to drizzle. He darted under a tree just west of the Lincoln Memorial.
Then, Kirvelaitis said, he noticed lightning in the distance and decided that he had better find a safer place because the storm seemed to be heading his way.
"It's not good to be under a tree," he said.
The lightning hit him at 5:45 p.m. -- just as he had taken his first step away from the tree. He said other people were nearby. The bolt entered his right hip and exited through his chest and foot. It shredded his clothes, and his shoes "looked like they had exploded," he said.
He isn't sure whether his heart stopped after being struck. But he said he stopped breathing. While unconscious, he dreamed that he was asleep behind the wheel of his car as it zipped down Interstate 95.
He woke up in the ambulance. Across from him was a federal agent who helped save his life. The off-duty Secret Service agent, whom the agency declined to identify, had given Kirvelaitis mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at the scene until paramedics arrived.
"He's a hero," Kirvelaitis said. "He's a gallant guy."
By the time he reached the hospital, Kirvelaitis felt almost normal again, he said. "Everyone was just amazed that I was alive."
Yesterday, Kirvelaitis said he felt as if he had suffered bad sunburn and had been singed by a stove's burner. His chest hurt. And he had lost some hearing from the lightning strike, he said.
Kirvelaitis said he expects to leave the hospital by tomorrow and return home to his wife, Vilia, son Kovas and daughter Indraja.
"I'm very lucky," Kirvelaitis said. "I get to live to see Father's Day."
He is not the first person to be struck by lightning at or near the Mall. In 1995, seven people were injured by lightning that struck on Independence Day.
The National Weather Service had not issued a thunderstorm warning for the District on Thursday, though it did issue an alert for flash flooding. Severe thunderstorm warnings were issued for some of the area's suburbs.
Still, rangers with the National Park Service urged people at the Mall to seek shelter as Thursday's storm approached, said Bill Line, a Park Service spokesman.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.