Carroll County

River Valley Ranch officials say they were monitoring storm that killed boy, 12

As Doug High recounted the events surrounding a deadly storm that hammered a religious summer camp in Carroll County, he was struck by his injured daughter's words. The first thing she asked when he picked her up at the hospital was, "Daddy, why did God do this to our camp?"

"For the first time as a parent, I was at a loss for words," the Manchester resident said Wednesday. "What do you say to that?"


Kirsten High, 11, who suffered a concussion, was one of seven children hospitalized after being injured by falling branches and trees in Tuesday evening's violent thunderstorm at River Valley Ranch in Millers.

A 12-year-old camper died of his injuries; his name has not been released.


Detritus left behind by the storm littered the camp Wednesday. Trees were down, signs related to the Western-theme camp lay on the ground.

By Wednesday evening, some campers, their parents by their sides, returned to pick up their belongings. A jar filled with dandelions and red flowers lay near the spot where the boy was fatally injured.

"It's a very sad day at River Valley Ranch. Our hearts are heavy for the victims," River Valley Ranch Executive Director Jon Bisset said. "We've been around for 62 years, and we've never had anything like this happen before, so it's been a very difficult time for us."

More than 100 campers ages 7 to 12 from across the Mid-Atlantic region were participating in a Bible study and singing songs in an open-air pavilion at the camp about 7 p.m. Tuesday when they saw black clouds on the horizon.

Bisset said counselors "immediately enacted our protocols for getting the children to a safe building. … In the process of doing that, the storm came upon them rapidly, quickly and violently without any notice."

Officials said as counselors led the campers along a wooded path toward a shelter about 150 yards away, several children were injured by falling branches and trees.

Along the path and around the pavilion, trees were snapped in two or torn up by the roots. About 15 to 20 trees were knocked over, and large branches were strewn about the camp, Bisset said.

He said ranch officials had been monitoring the storm, but the winds struck before the campers could be moved to a safe location.


Six children were hospitalized for treatment of injuries that were not life-threatening, and two children were treated at the scene.

Five of the injured were taken to Carroll Hospital Center in Westminster. By early Wednesday, they had been transferred to other hospitals or released, according to a spokeswoman.

Three were brought to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, said spokeswoman Ekaterina Peshava, though it was unclear if they were transfers from Carroll or other hospitals. Two were treated and released; one was admitted but was "not critical," Peshava said.

The children suffered head injuries, and cuts and bruises, she said.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service had tracked Tuesday's storm as it moved east into Maryland. Amy Bettwy, a meteorologist with the Baltimore-Washington forecast office, said the storm had a "history of producing damaging winds, all the way from West Virginia."

At 5:06 p.m., the region was placed under a severe thunderstorm watch.


At 6:39 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Carroll, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties, and Baltimore City and Loudoun County, Va.

Bettwy said such a warning is issued when wind gusts of 60 mph or greater, or hail at least the size of a quarter, is expected.

"It means a severe thunderstorm is occurring or is about to occur," she said. "When a warning is issued, we recommend you take shelter immediately." The warning lasted until 8:15 p.m.

The storm brought strong winds to Carroll County, with a weather service observer recording wind gusts of 63 mph at 6:58 p.m. four miles northeast of Millers.

Kirsten High recalled Wednesday that the storm came "really fast," and said campers ran up the hill toward a shelter. "Then the trees started falling down," she said. "Lots of people got hurt."

Kirsten was struck on the head and back by a falling tree limb. In the shelter there was a lot of crying, she said, and she comforted another girl who said her name was Joy.


"She also got hit in the head," Kirsten said. "She was very sad. She missed her parents and her brother and sisters."

Later, when Kirsten started to have a headache, she was among those sent to Carroll Hospital Center.

After the storm, her mother, Latisha High, called the camp to check in but was told by a staff member that Kirsten was fine. The nurse at the ranch called back about 11 p.m. to let her know Kirsten was at Carroll Hospital Center. She explained that, initially, staff had been focused on accounting for all of the campers and had not assessed Kirsten's injuries.

At the hospital, Kirsten was treated for a mild concussion and released.

Ranch employees stayed with other children as parents picked them up throughout the night, some as late as 2:30 a.m. About 15 to 20 campers from Fort Roller, the camp for children 13 and younger, remained at River Valley on Tuesday night and were picked up in the morning. Campers in other groups remained at the ranch, and activities continued Wednesday.

Catherine Lemaire of New Oxford, Pa., came to the camp about two hours after the accident. Her husband, a firefighter, heard about it over the scanner.


Lemaire said her 10-year-old son attended the camp for four years, and that this is her 7-year-old daughter's first year. She said the camp does a drill with campers, counselors and directors during each weeklong camp session in case of an emergency.

"These college students [who are camp counselors] did a knock-out-of-the-park job," Lemaire said. "They kept the kids calm. They kept them occupied."

State law requires camps to have a written emergency plan that includes procedures for staff to ensure campers' safety during natural disasters, severe weather and other emergencies. Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau, a division of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said officials have begun an inspection of the camp and to determine whether River Valley Ranch had such a plan.

The camp had not yet been inspected this year, which is not unusual, he said.

"All the camps tend to open up within the same generally short window," Mitchell said. "In reality, it's just not possible, nor have we ever inspected them all before they open."

He said River Valley Ranch has had no critical violations — defined as anything posing significant risk to children's health and safety — dating to 2011, when the state created its current database. Earlier records were not available.


River Valley Ranch offers programs and camps of varying lengths and themes for ages 7 to 17. The Fort Roller camp will reopen next week. Children who do not return will be eligible for a refund, officials said. All other camps will remain open.

Bisset said six grief counselors will be on hand for as long as necessary.

"We are a Christian camp, and we do believe in our heart that God is in control, and despite the difficult circumstances in our life, we rely on him for our strength, so that's what we're doing here," Bisset said. "That's what we're telling our staff. That's what we're saying when we talk to the families involved. We're trusting that something good will come from this.

"We're pressing on, moving forward and our hearts and prayers are with the families involved," he said.

Kirsten's parents said that despite the initial confusion about their daughter's condition, they were happy with the way River Valley Ranch handled the situation.

Having listened to their daughter's account, they believe staff reacted properly in trying to get the campers to shelter.


"The staff did the right thing," Latisha High said. "I feel that it's a miracle that it wasn't worse."

Kirsten calls River Valley Ranch her "second home," and her father said he hopes Tuesday night's incident will not keep people from enjoying the ranch in the future.

He said his daughter is scheduled to go back next week, and "I would unequivocally send her back knowing that she is in safe hands and in caring hands."

Still, he said, "this is a pretty bad hit to our community, especially for anyone that has kids. This is a parent's worst nightmare come true. It really makes you count your blessings."

Tuesday's incident was the second camp death in five years in Carroll County. In late 2009, 9-year-old Noah Asid died days after a tree fell on him at the Hashawha Environmental Center, a county-owned facility in Westminster.

Noah and other children and counselors were preparing for a hike as part of a nature camp when a 60-foot hickory tree fell on them.


Noah's family sued Carroll County in 2011, seeking $12 million in a wrongful death claim. The lawsuit claimed the county and camp employees were negligent by not cutting down the tree and not keeping campers inside during windy weather. A judge ruled in favor of the county in 2013.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Alison Knezevich, Pamela Wood and Krishana Davis contributed to this article.