Galloway Township police officials plan to meet with members of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District about their decision to conduct the Absegami High School graduation right before a hail storm struck Thursday.
Lt. Paul Dooner, public information officer for the department, said they plan to meet with the school to discuss the decision-making process. Seconds after the event ended Thursday evening, lightning and heavy rain and hail fell on the thousands of people who filled the school’s football stadium to watch the 2012 class of 439 students graduate.
“It was chaotic,” Dooner said. “People were racing (away from the storm).”
No serious injuries were reported as the people rushed for cover, but two people were transported to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus in Galloway — one for seizures and one for asthma.
The event became national news due to video shot by resident Matthew Blanchard that received more than 20,000 hits on YouTube through Friday afternoon and appeared on CNN, “Good Morning America,” “Today” and other programs.
Blanchard, 18, said he didn’t expect there to be a strong storm. But when he saw two big clouds form together, he decided to take out his phone and shoot the video.
“It was completely unexpected,” he said. “I didn’t think there would be a hail storm and tornadolike winds.”
The Atlantic City resident said he is shocked at all the attention his video is getting.
“I didn’t think (media) would want it,” he said. “I was just going to get it and put it on Facebook.”
School officials often have a difficult decision to make regarding inclement weather at graduation time. If they move the event inside, they risk many people not being able to see the festivities due to limited space. If an event is held on the rain date, some people may not be able to attend and the word must get out to everyone in time.
Mark DeLisi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said hail was in the forecast for Thursday night along with rain, lightning and thunderstorms. The type of storm was not unusual for this time of year, he said.
The service did not report any damage from the hail, he said.
At the beginning of the ceremony, attendees were told rain accompanied by lightning and thunderstorms was in the forecast. If the latter occurred, the ceremony would be moved to the gymnasium. But if it was just rain, the event would go on as planned. A rain date had been scheduled for Friday.
John Houck, board president of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District, said he was not at the graduation but talked to Superintendent Steven Ciccariello on Friday about the decision to go ahead as planned. Houck said students were told beforehand of the weather situation and the district made a last-minute decision to go ahead as planned.
Houck said everyone was on board with the decision and noted the district received only a handful of complaints Friday.
A ceremony with hundreds of students and their families is always difficult to coordinate and requires lots of decisions, Houck said, adding he has sat through a few rain-soaked graduations in the past.
“It’s a touchy call. They always are,” he said. “We go through this every year. You just never know.”
Ciccariello and Absegami Principal Jeri-Lynn Gatto did not return calls seeking comment Friday.
The ceremony was held largely under the sun, but dark clouds were above the adjacent school building and slowly crept to the field. The ceremony was held at a brisk pace to get it in moments before the storm began.
Dan Blanchard, 16, attended the ceremony with his family to watch his older sister graduate. Once the rain began, they fled the bleachers for their car but took cover in a shed once the hail began.
The sophomore at Atlantic City High School said his family was upset they got caught in the storm but noted it really didn’t affect the ceremony.
“My sister was not upset at all,” he said. “We don’t think it affected the graduation to the point it ruined it.”
Graduate Adam Bokunewicz, 18, said he and his fellow classmates wanted to have the ceremony outside. Even though a storm hit at the end, the Galloway resident said it didn’t take away from the event at all — in fact it gave them a more unique experience.
“I think our class as a whole enjoyed it completely,” he said. “There was no disappointment.”
Absegami was not the only ceremony affected by the rain.
At Oakcrest High School, storm clouds swirled on the horizon as students entered the football field. Lightning and thunder accompanied valedictorian Michael Warrener’s speech, but it stayed dry, and students received their diplomas with a rainbow in the background over the high school.
But as the names were being read, it started to rain. The diploma presenters read names faster, as the rain became torrential. Many onlookers ran for their cars, but others stayed.
Staff Writer Dave Simpson contributed to this story.
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