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, then sunshine, then another black cloud overhead, 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 been treated and released or transferred to other hospitals. The eight children suffered mainly cuts and broken bones, Bisset said.
Authorities were not yet releasing the name of the 12-year-old boy, who was killed by a fallen 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 in 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 said in a statement that 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 freak accident," he said.
"In a normal thunderstorm situation, you have time to act," Bisset added. "The children were not far from safety."
Bisset said he and the staff at the 500-acre camp contacted Tuesday night 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.
Staff delivered the news to the older campers housed at the main River Valley Ranch campus about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, as their session remained open. Shortly afterward, a group of teenage girls stood on a path, crying, praying and comforting each other.
"It's so tragic," said Bisset. "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."
Associated Press writer Randall Chase in Dover, Del., contributed to this story.