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Camp Director Speaks Out: Killer Storm 'Moved Upon Us so Fast'

Downed tree limbs and fire line tape scatter the grounds at River Valley Ranch summer camp Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Manchester, Md. One child was killed and six others were injured by a falling tree as they headed to a shelter during a severe thunderstorm Tuesday at the camp.Dylan Slagle / The Carroll County Times via AP

The director of a Maryland summer camp where a 12-year-old boy was crushed to death by a tree in a thunderstorm said Wednesday that there was almost no warning and that staff acted as quickly as they could.

He said the camp, River Valley Ranch, would review its emergency plans to make sure nothing like it ever happened again.

“In this particular situation, the storm moved upon us so fast,” said the director, Jon Bisset. “It was sunny, and within a minute the storm was there.”

The camp is in Carroll County, Maryland, which was covered by a severe thunderstorm warning before the storm hit.

More than 100 children, ages 7 to 12, were in an open-air pavilion for an evening session of singing and Bible stories on Tuesday night as the storm approached. Staff saw the storm coming and tried to hustle the children into a nearby building for safety.

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Bisset did not directly answer a question about whether camp staff are equipped with cellphones or other systems to alert them to severe weather, but he said the camp would examine its emergency protocol.

“We are always monitoring the weather here,” he said. “Thunderstorms are something that happens on a regular basis. And so they’re always monitoring the weather.”

Neither the camp nor authorities released the name of the boy who was killed. Eight other children were hurt, including seven who were taken to the hospital.

Bisset said he was proud of the staff for acting quickly to protect the children.

“The protocol is to get them to a safe location,” he said. “That’s exactly what the staff were doing at the time that this fast storm came through.”

“We’re just trusting that there’s something good that will come from this. But right now, we’re just, we’re sad.”

The National Weather Service issued the severe thunderstorm warning at 6:39 p.m. Tuesday, said Chris Strong, the warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service in Baltimore and Washington.

The alert included a warning that it was a “dangerous line of storms” and the instruction to move indoors, away from windows. The worst of the storm was over the camp at 6:55, Strong said.

The weather service had issued a severe thunderstorm watch at 5:06 p.m., warning of the possibility of strong storms.

Strong said that summer storms often pop up quickly, partly because of heat trapped in the atmosphere, but that on Tuesday night a line of storms developed further to the west and marched east, causing damage from West Virginia to Philadelphia.

“In this case, it wasn’t something that popped up quickly, like they can sometimes,” he said.

Winds were clocked faster than 60 mph.

Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, which accredits more than 2,600 camps across the country, said that emergency weather procedures vary widely from one camp to another.

Some use cellphones to spread the word, while others use sirens or bells, she said. The average camp covers 147 acres, she said, and summer camps are often necessarily in remote areas.

“Camps are an unplugged environment, by and large,” she said.

She said could not talk in specifics about River Valley Ranch, which is not part of the ACA system.

Before it accredits a camp, the ACA puts it through a 300-point health and safety check. The ACA asks that the camp have a written plan for extreme weather — fires, floods, earthquakes, severe thunderstorms — and that staff rehearse it.

No camp is accident-proof, Smith said. But she suggested that worried parents ask ahead of time about what relationships the camp has with local emergency services and what systems are set up to notify parents if something goes wrong.

The ACA doesn’t keep statistics on weather deaths at camps, and the National Center for Health Statistics said it does not keep detailed data on trees falling on children. But Smith described the Maryland death as “very rare.”

“I think parents need to understand there’s nothing more important to a camp director than keeping children safe,” she said. “We’re all so deeply saddened.”

Bisset, the camp director, said that the children in the section of the camp where the storm struck were sent home. He said the staff was still assessing cleanup. A separate day camp and a camp for teenagers will remain open, he said.

Staff at the camp, which has a Christian focus, “believe in our heart that God is in control, and despite difficult circumstances in our life, we rely on him for our strength, so that is what we’re doing here,” Bisset said.

“We’re just trusting that there’s something good that will come from this,” he said, “but right now, we’re just, we’re sad.”