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Massive fire erupts at Camp Airy in Maryland

It's a huge blow to the camp that's been active since the 1920s, but officials say it's not a knockout blow.

THURMONT, Md. — A catastrophic blaze broke out at a historic summer camp for Jewish boys in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains on Wednesday morning, according to fire authorities in Frederick County. 

Administrators of Camp Airy immediately reported that there had been no injuries to campers or staff and that everyone was safely accounted for. But the camp's historic dining hall, known as "The White House" by generations of campers dating back to the 1920s, was destroyed.

The smoke from the morning fire was seen from dozens of miles away because of Camp Airy's site high on a mountainside above the Monocacy valley in Maryland, officials said.

Frederick County Emergency Communication Center received calls around 7:30 a.m. for a building fire at the 14900 block of Old Camp Airy Road in Thurmont. Marty Rochlin, the camp's director, said staffers were in the building beginning to prepare breakfast for the busy camp when workers saw smoke and evacuated. The fire quickly spread from the dining hall throughout the first and second floors of the building.  

Firefighters came from as far away as southern Pennsylvania and Montgomery County Maryland to help as the fire went to two alarms. Water was pumped up the steep mountain from ponds and swimming pools on the site, firefighters said.

"We are currently relocating many of these activities, and want to assure you that campers will be fed on time with the quality meals that you expect," Rochlin wrote in a statement on behalf of Camp Airy. 

Credit: Camp Airy

On Wednesday night the camp announced that a plan to provide meals for the campers was in the works. With the help of their sister camp and the kitchen staff at Camp Louise the campers were able to provide meals.

"We are pleased to report that we have a plan in place for serving meals throughout the summer at Camp Airy," a spokesperson for the camp said in a Facebook post. "We anticipate normal meal service to resume shorty. A full-service mobile kitchen has been procured, our food vendors are scheduling supply runs, tables and chairs, and a temporary dining facility are all en route."

Posted by Camps Airy & Louise on Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The camp also thanked Rocky’s Pizza, Gateway Farm Market, Bethesda Bagels and Medium Rare for providing meals for campers and staff as the community reached out to help.

Feed the Fridge, in partnership with Medium Rare, is even expected to prepare and deliver 600 meals to the camp Thursday afternoon.

All other buildings were saved, and the Frederick County Fire Investigation Task Force is investigating the cause of the fire. 

A letter was sent home to parents of campers: 

As many of you are aware, there was a fire this morning at the Camp Airy dining hall.  The good news is that there were no injuries, and everyone is safe and accounted for. 

Camps Airy & Louise want to thank everyone who responded so quickly during the crisis. First and foremost, the first responders from the Frederick County Fire Department who did everything possible to try and save the building. We want to thank our leadership, support staff, and counselors who kept our campers safe and kept disruptions to a minimum. They did an incredible job in a very unexpected situation, and we are grateful that they reacted as we had prepared them to during any emergency.

For our current campers, we are addressing the situation in a manner to cause the least amount of disruption to their daily activities. A plan is in place to prepare and serve meals, activities scheduled for that part of camp are being re-directed, and counseling has been made available to campers and staff who require it.

For our alumni and staff, the loss of the dining hall brings out many emotions. It was one of the original camp buildings, and as we approach 100 years, we will feel its loss deeply. We encourage our community to do what it always does in times of emotion and share your memories with one another. While we appreciate so many of you reaching out to us to assist in any way you can, please understand that our primary focus today remains on our current campers and their families, and supporting them through this difficult situation.

We thank everyone for their ongoing support and patience as we navigate this unprecedented situation, and will continue to keep everyone informed as we have more news to share.

Credit: Camp Airy
The dining hall at Camp Airy

According to the camp's website, Camp Airy was established in 1924 to provide Jewish children with a creative and adventurous summer each year. The founders of Camp Airy, Aaron Stratus and Lillie Straus, had a vision for every Jewish child to have the opportunity to enjoy summer camp despite the families' income.

Generations of camp alumni reacted with sadness Wednesday when they learned of the fire. 

"I had a lot of great childhood memories in that building," said Steven Grutman, the third generation in his family to attend Camp Airy.

His father Harvey Grutman said the decision to continue with camp programming in the wake of the disaster was not a surprise.

"Always move forward," Harvey Grutman said. "It's important that those customs are kept and that the traditions of Judaism are kept. That's what the importance is."

The father and son said the dining hall was filled with momentos and artifacts from the camp's century-long history.mIn particular, campers past and present signed their names on boards displayed throughout the hall.

Camp alumni include OAR bandmates Marc Roberge and Chris Culos along with Carl Bernstien of the Washington Post, according to Rochlin.

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