MANCHESTER, Md. (AP) — More than 100 young campers sang songs, read stories and prayed in an open-air pavilion, as they did each night at the River Valley Ranch camp. Then, the sky began to darken and a light rain began to fall.
A supervisor at the Christian summer camp decided to cut the evening short Tuesday and, to be on the safe side, get the children to shelter 150 yards away. As the kids filed onto a wooded path toward one of the camp’s main buildings, a storm that Camp Executive Director Jon Bisset said was “the most violent and localized” weather event he’d ever seen, rapidly formed over the hill.
It began with a black cloud, Bisset said his staff told him. A powerful, relentless wind tore through the area for only 30 seconds. Then came light rain and a rainbow.
By then, whole trees had been downed, eight children on the path were injured and one boy was killed.
In the wake of severe weather that swept through the East Coast, the camp community struggled Wednesday to recover from the “sickening and tragic” event, Bisset said. The path from the pavilion was littered with tree limbs and debris; one large tree beside the road was snapped in half, its trunk splintered. At the top of the path, the cabins were deserted, except for a few brightly colored towels still hanging off the edges of their porches.
Emergency workers took the injured children to four hospitals: Johns Hopkins and Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Carroll Hospital Center in Westminster, and Hanover Hospital in nearby Pennsylvania. Selena Brewer, a spokeswoman for Carroll Hospital Center, said five campers brought there were either treated and released or transferred to other hospitals.
The eight children suffered mainly cuts and broken bones, Bisset said. A Hopkins spokeswoman said staff there treated three children for a variety of problems, including head injuries and bruises; one was admitted.
Authorities did not release the name of the 12-year-old boy, who was killed by a falling tree. He was one of 114 children, ages 7 to 12, who were in the camp’s Arrowhead Woods and Fort Roller groups and who were at the pavilion. He had attended the camp previously.
Amy Bettwy, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the weather service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the area including Carroll County at 5:06 p.m. Tuesday, effective until 11 p.m.
The weather service then issued two severe thunderstorm warnings that included Carroll County, and Manchester itself. The first warning was issued at 6 p.m. and encompassed the western part of the county, but its edge included Manchester, Bettwy said. The second warning was issued at 6:39 p.m. as the storm moved eastward.
The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement that outlined the storm’s arrival and the effort to protect the children, as described in greater detail by Bisset. The sheriff’s office said the children were injured just before 7 p.m.
Bisset said Wednesday that he did not know if staffers had checked the forecast, but they regularly monitor the weather. He said the camp will review its procedures for handling severe events.
“It’s the summertime — there are thunderstorms that come through all the time and we have protocol for what to do in case of weather,” Bisset said.
The staff followed that protocol, by moving the children to a secure location as soon as they saw a storm approaching, he said. But the storm came too quickly and too violently and struck right where the children were. “It was a freak accident,” he said.
“In a normal thunderstorm situation, you have time to act,” Bisset added. “The children were not far from safety.”
Capt. Richard Hart, commander with the criminal investigation division of the sheriff’s office, said a preliminary investigation of the boy’s death would take about a week.
“So far, our investigation has led us to believe that it’s nothing apart from an accident. So far, I don’t see any negligence,” Hart said. “I think Mother Nature just came down.”
The camp has an operating permit from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s environmental health bureau. Dr. Clifford Mitchell, the bureau’s director, says camps are required to have a written plan for weather emergencies and natural disasters. But besides checking that a camp has a plan, the bureau does not evaluate or approve it.
Mitchell said his office has begun an inspection of the camp and will look at whether it operated in compliance with state regulations. That will include looking at any emergency plan.
Bisset said that on Tuesday night, he and the staff at the 500-acre camp contacted the parents of every child at its Arrowhead Woods campus, which is for ages 7 to 9, and its Fort Roller campus, which is for ages 9 to 12. By Wednesday afternoon, all those campers had been picked up and those campuses were closed. He said Fort Roller would reopen on Sunday, and Arrowhead Woods the following Sunday. A third campus for teenagers remained open.
“It’s so tragic,” Bisset said. “We’re here to help kids grow and mature and nurture them spiritually, and this goes against what we’re trying to do. There just aren’t any answers as to why this happened.”
About 75 parents and children showed up at the camp Wednesday evening to meet with a grief counselor and ask how they could help the families of the boy who was killed and the children who were injured.
“It’s a nightmare, but there are some circumstances that are beyond our control,” said Catherine Lemaire of New Oxford, Pennsylvania, whose 10-year-old son is in his fourth year at the camp. “I slept with my two kids last night, one on each side.”
Lemaire said that for her son, camp is “like an extended family.”
“They kind of understand what happened and what’s going on,” she said of the children, “but today they wanted to come back.”