When North Bellmore's Martha Kovel pulled up to the Lido Beach campgrounds Thursday morning to drop off her son, she could tell immediately the mood had darkened at his longtime camp.

Distraught staff, weeping volunteers: The atmosphere just felt heavy, she said.

"You knew that something really horrible horrible happened," said Kovel, whose son Harry Konigstein, 17, has Asperger's and is bipolar.

Camp Anchor had just heard about the highway crash that killed three of their own and sent two others to the hospital. The somber and grief-stricken volunteers and counselors who staff Camp Anchor were facing the grim task of considering how and whether they should tell the 675 special-needs campers the devastating news.

The five counselors involved in the crash were due at camp by 9 a.m., town officials said.

"They were all driving together, typical commuting experience, to come to the camp as they did each and every day," said Kate Murray, supervisor of Hempstead Town, which owns the camp.

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The camp provides a beachside camp experience for campers as young as 5 who have a range of disabilities, from paralysis to autism, said town spokesman Mike Deery. Campers come from all over Hempstead Town for the summer program, where they can play, swim and enjoy the company of peers.

"They all have very, very special needs, but they know that a big tragedy has happened," Murray said of the campers.

Murray often visits the camp and knows many of the staff and campers, she said at a news conference near the campsite.

"It's devastating. Absolutely devastating," she said, her voice cracking as she started to cry.

She was too distraught to finish the news conference she was holding on the 46-acre property.

With grief counselors present, some campers were told the news. All campers were sent home with letters to their parents letting them know what had happened.

Because of the horrific accident, the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, the rank-and-file officers union, canceled its annual picnic that members run at the camp for the children, said union president James Carver.

The camp provides a ratio of staff to campers of about one for every two children. The counselors in the car Thursday all started off as volunteers - and only the best volunteers go on to be paid staff, Murray said. The grief extended beyond Lido Beach and hit people hard in Floral Park, the victims' hometown. Warren Meierdiercks, superintendent of Sewanhaka Central High School District, said grief counselors will be at Floral Park Memorial High School Friday starting at 7:30 a.m. to offer support to students, and parents and other community members.

Meierdiercks said the counselors will be available for "anyone who wants to come in and talk to us about this tragic situation."

With Yamiche Alcindor