Small Miracles Add Up During Camp Simcha Fire

Beginning with a counselor who smelled smoke and evacuated her bunk, the early morning hours were filled with small miracles that added up to a big one: No one was injured during the fire that destroyed two bunks at Camp Simcha, Chai Lifeline’s renowned, medically supervised camp for children and teens with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, early Shabbos morning.

The fire was first noticed by a counselor at 4:30 a.m.  Not waiting for smoke or flames, she and the other counselors evacuated campers within two minutes. At the same time, counselors alerted the medical center, directors of operations, and adjacent bunks.

The second miracle happened only moments later. Camp Simcha’s operations director, Bency Brown, used skills he observed only weeks before during a Lumberland Fire Department fire training at Camp Simcha. Brown entered the smoke-filled bunk and patted each bed to make sure it was empty. He came outside and reassured the staff that everyone was safely evacuated.

Within 10 minutes, the camp had safely removed itself to a parking lot across a road, and a full census assured that all staff and campers were accounted for. Children and staff watched as fire engines rolled into camp to begin the process of containing the fire.

And was it a small miracle or happenstance that Dr. Cheryl Greenberger, Chai Lifeline’s director of family and clinical services and an experienced trauma counselor, was in camp this Shabbos for the bar mitzvah of the son of one of the camp physicians? Dr. Greenberger joined the division heads and girls’ head counselor Rivky Schwartz as they spoke with campers individually and in groups to enable them to express their emotions. Dr. Greenberger remained at camp on Sunday, offering validation for emotions that ranged from fear to confidence.

Constant Acts of Heroism

Girls’ head counselor Rivky Schwartz described the day as filled with acts of heroism on the part of campers and staff alike. One child, at camp with her twin sister, had tried to retrieve her sister’s eyeglasses. When she couldn’t find them, she grabbed her sister’s teddy bear, choosing to save that instead of her own.

“So many children lost the blankets, cozies, and stuffed animals that had sustained them through treatments,” said Miss Schwartz. “That was more devastating for them than losing their clothing.”

Since every child in Camp Simcha has undergone arduous treatments, they all understood what it meant to lose the item that had comforted them. And so they responded in kind. Bunks of children brought favorite clothes, stuffed animals or presents to the girls who had lost everything.

“It was uplifting to see them give so selflessly. One child said, ‘If I was in the fire, this is what I would want someone to give me,’ and gave her preferred blanket to a child along with a big hug.”

Camp Simcha’s medical staff promptly set up a field station in the dining room, giving campers and staff members a full checkup. Five people were treated for smoke inhalation but no one suffered serious injury.

Day Filled With Thanksgiving, Activities, and Healing

Camp Simcha always starts the day with song, but Shabbos morning there was a special urgency. “There was lots of singing … Chasdei Hashem, Hodu L’Shem Ki Tov … We were able to express our thanks that no one was hurt in the blaze,” explained Miss Schwartz.

As campers lifted up their voices in song, Camp Simcha’s maintenance staff was already hard at work. Though Saturday is their day off, the head of the staff had been alerted to the fire when it was broadcast on the department’s radio. Maintenance workers gave up their day off to remake one of the bunks into a new home. By the evening, the girls had moved in. On each bed were new clothes, stuffed toys, and personal items to replace those that had been lost. Several Chai Lifeline donors came forward with donations that allowed the girls and their counselors to take a trip to a local mall on Sunday to purchase new clothing.

Within minutes after Shabbos ended, the senior staff was on the phone with parents, assuring them that all children and staff were safe. “I’m glad it happened at Camp Simcha, where you take such good care of our children,” one parent admitted.

Rabbi Simcha Scholar assessed the situation Motzoei Shabbos. “These children have gone through so much in their young lives. This is a setback for camp, but not for them.

“We will rebuild. Camp Simcha will be back next year and every year until pediatric illness is a thing of the past.”