Family, friends mourn camper killed by falling tree in Carroll County

At the funeral Tuesday for Justin Nicholas Diggs, family and friends remembered a child who loved the outdoors, God and helping others.

Justin, a 12-year-old Pikesville Middle School honor student, was killed July 8 when a tree fell on him during a violent thunderstorm at River Valley Ranch, a Christian summer camp in the Millers community in Carroll County. Eight other children in the camp were treated for minor injuries.


During the service at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, camp program director John Zeigenfuse recounted how Justin once told his mother he wasn't calling home often while at River Valley because he was busy helping other campers.

The boy, Zeigenfuse said, was hard to photograph. "He was always on the move," he said. "Justin was a very active kid."

Zeigenfuse witnessed Justin's death and told those gathered at the morning service that he's been contemplating deeply about the child in the week since his death. He said he was struck that the instrument of Justin's death — a tree — was also the instrument of Jesus Christ's death on the cross.

"Those trees that right now bring me grief, I know that one day they will bring me hope," he said.

About 650 people, including many fellow campers from River Valley Ranch, attended Tuesday's service. Described as a celebration by family members, the gathering was marked by upbeat songs, such as "When We All Get to Heaven" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," that had attendees standing to sing and clap.

Bishop Walter Scott Thomas, senior pastor at New Psalmist and a family friend, told those gathered they should take comfort knowing Justin has found peace in heaven.

"We're here to say farewell to someone who found good in life," Thomas said. "I know one day we'll say good morning to [him]."

Justin's school friends recalled the boy as kind, loyal and supportive. Malachi Dawkins, a friend who said he hopes to someday be a musician, said Justin was always encouraging, and often called him a "star." His voice broke as he recalled how the two would come up with nicknames for one another — "J-Dog" and "Fresh Prince."

Malachi said when he heard the news of his friend's death, "I thought my life was over, too, because I didn't know what I would do."

During last week's storm, more than 100 campers were caught outside as they participated in a Bible study session. River Valley officials said they had been monitoring the storm, but winds started blowing quickly. As counselors led campers along a wooded path toward a shelter, the children were struck by falling trees and branches.

Justin's mother, Antoinette Benns, did not speak at Tuesday's service but in a statement thanked the community for its support.

"Justin was the light of my life and a light to everyone who knew him," she said. "He is going home, and he will be greatly missed."

She said support from River Valley Ranch, New Psalmist Baptist Church and the community "has carried me through a very difficult time. Please pray for all who were affected by this terrible tragedy including the River Valley Ranch family."

Justin Diggs was interred at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville.


This week River Valley Ranch opened for its next session of summer camp, and also launched a memorial fund for the Diggs family.