Thursday, June 12, 2008

Scouts act quickly after tornado destroys Iowa camp

BLENCOE, Iowa - Boy Scouts who came to each others' aid after a tornado that killed four of their comrades and injured 48 people were hailed as heroes Thursday for helping to administer first aid and search for victims buried in their flattened campsite. Iowa rescue workers cut through downed branches and dug through debris amid rain and lightning Wednesday night to reach the camp where the 93 boys, ages 13 to 18, had huddled for safety through the twister. They and 25 staff members were attending a weeklong leadership training camp.

Lloyd Roitstein, an executive with the Mid America Council of the Boy Scouts of America, reminded reporters at a news conference Thursday that the Boy Scouts motto is "Be Prepared." "Last night, the agencies and the Scouts were prepared," he said. "They knew what to do, they knew where to go, and they prepared well."

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver praised the boys for "taking care of each other." The tornado through the Scout camp killed three 13-year-olds and one 14-year-old, Roitstein said. A tornado siren went off at the camp, but the Scouts had already taken cover before the siren sounded. There was no time to remove them from the isolated retreat, he said. The boys had been in two groups when the storm hit the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in the Loess Hills. One group managed to take shelter, while the other was out hiking. Boy Scout officials identified the dead as Aaron Eilerts, 14, of Eagle Grove, Iowa and Josh Fennen, 13, Sam Thomsen, 13, and Ben Petrzilka, 14, all of Omaha. All the Scouts and staff were accounted for, Meyer said, adding that searchers were making another pass through the grounds to make sure no one else was injured. The camp was destroyed.

Thomas White, a scout supervisor, said he dug through the wreckage of a collapsed fireplace to reach victims in a building where many scouts were seeking shelter when the twister struck at about 6:35 p.m. "A bunch of us got together and started undoing the rubble from the fireplace and stuff and waiting for the first responders," White told KMTV in Omaha, Neb. "They were under the tables and stuff and on their knees, but they had no chance." The nearest tornado siren, in nearby Blencoe, sounded only briefly after the storm cut power to the town, said Russ Lawrenson of the Mondamin Fire Department.

Taylor Willoughby, 13, said several scouts were getting ready to watch a movie when someone screamed that there was a tornado. Everyone hunkered down, he said, and windows shattered. "It sounded like a jet that was flying by really close," Taylor told NBC's "Today" on Thursday. "I was hoping that we all made it out OK. I was afraid for my life."

Ethan Hession, also 13, said he crawled under a table with his friend. "I just remember looking over at my friend, and all of a sudden he just says to me, `Dear God, save us,'" he told "Today." "Then I just closed my eyes and all of a sudden it's (the tornado) gone." Ethan said the Scouts' first-aid training immediately compelled them to act. "We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we need to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits, we had everything," he said. Ethan said one staff member took off his shirt and put it on someone who was bleeding to apply pressure and gauze. Other Scouts started digging people out of the rubble, he said.

The 1,800-acre ranch about 40 miles north of Omaha includes hiking trails through narrow valleys and over steep hills, a 15-acre lake and a rifle range.

--By TIMBERLY ROSS, Associated Press Writer. Associated Press writers Henry C. Jackson in Des Moines, Iowa; Anna Jo Bratton in Onawa, Iowa; and John Hanna in Chapman, Kan., contributed to this report.