Memories of Dining Hall at Thurmont’s Camp Airy Remain Strong After Fire

Damage from dining hall fire at Camp Airy
Damage from the fire at Camp Airy (Frederick County (MD) Fire & Rescue Facebook page)


As a 7-year-old at Camp Airy for Boys, Frank Blatt was introduced to the concept of dessert. His family “didn’t believe in dessert,” he said.

Those desserts — and other good food, from french fries and grilled cheese to pizza — were served in the dining room known as the “White House.”

Now a clinical pharmacist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Blatt on June 29 watched TV and internet reports as a massive two-alarm fire consumed the White House at the camp in Thurmont, Md.

The fire began just before 7:30 a.m. on June 29. As many as 100 firefighters from Maryland and Pennsylvania were called to fight the blaze, reported WBAL. As there were no fire hydrants in the area, firefighters relied on a pond around a mile away to draw water from. Firefighters were able to contain the combustion to the dining hall, which had been evacuated, within three hours.

While the fire resulted in no injuries and Camp Airy is reported to be operating normally, the dining hall has been deemed a “total loss,” with damages estimated at around $2 million, according to Frederick County Fire and Rescue. Investigators have ruled out any intentional or suspicious factors.

“I felt that part of my childhood experience went up in flames,” said Blatt, who became a counselor at the camp when he was 19.

“Today has been one of the more difficult and unexpected days at Camp Airy that most of us have ever encountered,” read a statement released on the Camps Airy & Louise Facebook page. “As a leadership team, we applaud the efforts of our entire staff in rising to the occasion and providing our campers with as normal a day on the mountain as anyone could expect.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington pledged to allocate $25,000 in emergency funds to help Camp Airy, read an email by CEO Gil Preuss.

Preuss added that he was both relieved to know that everyone was safe from the fire and saddened by the loss of a “special space” for the camp community.

“Situations like these serve as reminders of the importance of our strong connections with one another, and it has been heartening to witness the outpouring of support for Camp Airy,” Preuss said.

“For years, countless Baltimoreans have considered Camps Airy and Louise their home during the summer months,” read a statement from the The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.

“As you might imagine, the White House is not only where we serve our meals, but also a hub of activity at camp,” camp Director Marty Rochlin wrote to parents. The first session of the summer had started days before.

Campers at Camp Airy
Campers at Camp Airy | Photo courtesy of Camps Airy and Louise

On Facebook, members of the camp community shared their relief that there were no injuries and pride in how first responders and the camp handled the fire.

“It doesn’t surprise me how well everything was handled yesterday and will continue throughout the summer. I, like so many others, are proud to be a part of this amazing family. #airylouise strong!” wrote Andrea Abrams.

Wrote Benjamin Alpert: “Marty, blessings that nobody was hurt. My family has many many years attached to Camp Airy and Louise.”

Marisa Lavine: “You are all doing an amazing job and we are 100% confident that you will continue giving all of our kids an amazing summer. Thank you for keeping everyone safe.”

David London “1978-80 Alum here. So glad no one was hurt and that camp will continue.”

Alysa Bernstein: “Thank you!! Amazing job at Camp Airy. Quite a plan B.”

Rachel Sari Waxberg-Singer: “Way to go under pressure!!!”

Simon Marshall: “Love sent from all over the world (including myself in the UK). The fire resonated far and wide. As Marty said, ‘Camp is the people.’ Resilience is in your nature. It will be rebuilt bigger, and stronger. I am sure this hiccup will be a mere bump in the summer of 2022. Have a superb summer all of you and I look forward to seeing Sandy’s office being the focal point of staff rendezvous for years to come.”

The building may not be there anymore,” Dan Schimel wrote on Facebook, “but 100 years of memories will remain for ever.”

Those memories of the White House were flooding back to Blatt. “The place had a certain distinct smell,” he said. “It wasn’t good or bad, it’s just that’s what it smelled like.”

He recalled the Camp Airy bug juice. “There’s nothing like drinking an ice cold drink from a dented metal container, especially on a hot July day.”

But he felt a sense of loss. “In my religion, when you lose something, you go into a shivah period,” said Blatt. “That’s exactly how I felt. I felt that something was taken away from me.”

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This article was originally published in our sister publication Washington Jewish Week.