Summer Storms Kill Two N.J. Teens, Michigan Camp Director

By Rebecca Spence

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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HACKENSACK, N.J. — The two teenagers were enjoying the long days of summer last Saturday, playing a casual, early-evening game of soccer with friends.

But when a thunderstorm touched down July 22 on the elementary school field in Montvale, N.J., where Steven Fagan, 18, and Lee Weisbrod, 19, were playing soccer, a bolt of lightning struck, taking both of their lives, the Montvale police said. Two other teens were injured.

Hundreds of mourners turned out at funerals for both young men, which took place three hours and three-and-a-half miles apart on Tuesday at chapels in Hackensack and Paramus, N.J. Both youngsters were remembered for their dedication to Jewish causes, and Israeli and American flags stood at the entrance to the chapel where Fagan’s service was held.

Five days earlier, in suburban Detroit, more than 1,000 people turned out to mourn another storm victim, Jeffrey Grey, 26. Grey, who was the director of a Jewish summer camp, was killed while on a camping trip in Ontario. He died when a tree fell on his tent during a violent storm accompanied by 80-mile-per-hour winds. Another camp counselor, Aaron Lebovic, suffered a broken back and is hospitalized.

The three young men were among at least seven Americans killed by thunderstorms last week during a six-day period marked by violent weather and record-breaking heat across much of the country. Other victims included a Detroit woman, a Florida man, and youths in Alabama and Colorado.

Thunderstorms and severe weather are commonplace during the sweltering summer months, and weather-related tragedies are not new. This year, however, meteorologists have noted a sharp increase in temperatures and are foreseeing unusually strong weather, which scientists say is a predicted consequence of global warming.

Two new scientific studies, one released earlier this month and one forthcoming, point to an increase in thunderstorm activity this year, probably as a consequence of global warming. Climate experts say that 2006 may shape up to be the hottest year on record, increasing the likelihood of severe weather.

But in Bergen County, N.J., where a close-knit community of friends and family gathered to mourn the losses of Fagan and Weisbrod, the talk centered on the lives that the two boys touched and on the deeply felt impact of their sudden deaths.

Fagan’s uncle, who was visiting Haifa when he heard of his nephew’s death, recounted how he had feared for the life of a young Israeli soldier who was leaving for war in Lebanon, only to get a call that his nephew, seemingly safe in America, had been killed. Standing in front of his nephew’s casket, which was covered by a black cloth emblazoned with a white Star of David, he recalled how the young Israeli soldier had said to tell Fagan’s parents that their son’s death was “goral,” Hebrew for “fate” or “destiny.”

Many of Fagan’s friends, who spilled out into the back of the sanctuary — where more than 250 people had gathered — mentioned his love of sports. One friend described Fagan as “an athlete” as well as “a journalist,” because “he loved to document every experience.” Another, recounting Fagan’s love of films, said, “I still can’t believe we saw 50 movies in two months,” eliciting laughter from the crowd. Some friends wore white wristbands in remembrance of the two boys, with their initials, “S.F.” and “L.W.,” and the date of their death, “7/22,” inscribed in black marker.

Fagan’s mother, Alice, speaking in a composed voice, remembered how her son, a recent graduate of Pascack Hills High School in Montvale who was to attend Drew University this fall, often submitted short stories to contests. She also said that he made it a habit of writing to ESPN sports commentators to discuss athletic plays.

As the rabbi recited a memorial prayer to conclude Fagan’s service, a teenage girl, overwhelmed with grief, fainted in the rear of the sanctuary.

Weisbrod, who had just completed his first year at the University of Miami, was, like Fagan, remembered for his love of sports. At the 1 p.m. service, Weisbrod’s mother, Nancy, said, as if speaking directly to her son, “Your competitive drive never waned.” She added, “You always believed that second place was first loser.” In 1998, she recalled, her son had skipped school and she took off a day from work so that mother and son could attend the Yankees ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Weisbrod’s father, Eugene, recalled how, as a young bar mitzvah, Weisbrod had wondered whether any of his friends actually would come to the ceremony marking his passage into adulthood. Of course, he said, they did. Now, he said, Weisbrod’s friends had come out in force to show their support once again. A delegation from the University of Miami tennis team, whom Weisbrod, an avid tennis player, had befriended, “all came down here” to attend the funeral, he said.

Both Grey and Weisbrod were recalled at their funerals as active members of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.

Grey’s funeral, held in suburban Southfield, Mich., was no less emotional, according to published reports. Grey was the director of Camp Kennedy, which is a wilderness division of Tamarack Camps, a longstanding institution in the Detroit Jewish community. Along with testimonials by family members and community leaders, selections were played of songs written by Grey, an avid guitarist and songwriter.

On the Web site of Tamarack Camps, a section profiling the camps’ directors offers an unintended testimonial to Grey’s dedication to Jewish summer camping. “I realized,” Grey wrote, “that my own personal strengths in leadership, confidence and Jewish identity had come largely from my summer experiences.”

A report on wildfires that was released earlier this month by a team of scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international consortium that assesses the impact of changing weather patterns, suggests that higher temperatures may generate more lightning. Another report, written by University of Calgary biologist Ed Johnson and soon to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Biogeosciences, according to the Calgary Herald, also draws a connection between lightning and forest fires, which recently have ravaged the Western United States.

One climate expert, Jeff Trapp, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Purdue University who specializes in severe storms, said that there is still too little information on lightning and its frequency over the past century to draw any solid conclusions about a potential uptick. Still, he said, there is “reason to believe that in a warmer climate, based on physical reasoning, there will be more thunderstorms in the future and they will be more intense.”

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