Scouts in Tornado Help Save Lives

Putting their skills to test, Boy Scouts trapped in tornado take heroic action.


June 12, 2008 — -- A tornado that smashed through a Boy Scout camp in Iowa with little warning killed four of the campers and injured 48, but the state's governor and scout leaders said they marveled at how the surviving boys rallied to dig out their friends, set up triage sites and administer first aid.

Two other people were killed by twisters that swept through Kansas, the latest casualties in a particularly violent tornado season this year.

But the damage wreaked at the remote Little Sioux Scout Ranch was near total. When it was over, scouts were found huddled under tables, clinging to a metal pole, while others were buried under a fireplace that had collapsed and killed at least one scout.

Officials said four teenagers died in the camp. They were identified as Aaron Eilerts, 14 from Eagle Grove, Iowa; Josh Fennen, 13, Sam Thomsen, 13, and Ben Petrzilka, 13, all from Omaha.

What is emerging from the catastrophe are tales of a ferocious twister that left the camp in ruins, as well as the heroism of the scouts, who lived up to their motto "Be prepared."Iowa Gov. Chet Culver toured the remains of the camp and was briefed on the casualties.

He told "Good Morning America" that "the young men that survived were the real heroes. Amazing stories of them using their own techniques they had learned helping the people who were injured and as the governor of Iowa, I'm very proud of those young men."

At a news conference later this morning, Culver said their first aid "literally saved lives" while they waited for emergency services to reach them.

Lloyd Roitstein, an executive with the Mid America Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said the surviving boys triaged the injured and used their first aid training to set tourniquets and bandages on the injured.

He praised their "bravery and courage," adding, "they performed remarkably."

At least a dozen people remain hospitalized Thursday afternoon with injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to major head trauma. Several of the most serious cases were flown by helicopter to hospitals in Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa.

The National Weather Service said several tornado watches for the area were issued earlier in the day, but the scouts had at most only 12 minutes to find safety from the moment the tornado was spotted and when it struck the camp with winds around 135 mph. The scouts likely had even less time to find a secure spot because it would have taken another minute or more for the warning siren to be triggered.

Video from KETV showed splintered trees along the dirt road into the camp as well as cars belonging the campers crumpled and tossed onto their sides. Flimsy tents were strewn about and the only thing left of the site's pavilion was its cement slab floor and heavy concrete blocks and bricks in a small pile where the chimney once was. Other cement blocks scattered around the grounds. The pavilion's walls and roof were tossed against trees a short distance away.

When the twister struck, the 93 scouts and 25 adults were divided into two groups. One was in camp, but the other was out hiking on the 1,800-acre Little Sioux Scout Ranch, which includes steep hills, a 15-acre lake and a rifle range.

The tornado came up so quickly that they had little chance to seek cover. Many of the campers huddled in what Culver called a bunk house that withstood the onslaught. Others hid in a ditch.

But many ran to a pavilion that took a direct hit from the tornado.

Zach Jessen, 14, recalled the scene for "GMA."

"They saw a rotation in the clouds," recounted Jessen. "We all grabbed our stuff from one building. We went outside. The alarm went off. We woke up everybody. We got the people to the shelter just in time, just before the tornado hit."

When the twister struck, "the door on the building flew open and all I heard was 'Get under the tables, get under the tables!' So I got under there."

Jessen said he used his body to cover the head of another boy.

"Then all of a sudden the tornado came and took the building with it. … There were some tables there. They weren't bolted down though. Some were thrown out. The chimney in the building was completely gone, too."

Jessen said he saw nothing while the tornado was overhead, but when he looked up after it passed there was little to recognize.

"From what I saw, it was just one giant pile of stuff," he said.

Jessen said living through the tornado was an experience he will never forget.

"I think if I can survive a tornado, I can pretty much survive anything right now," he told GMA.

When heavy rains began that night, between 40 and 50 people left their tents and moved inside a roofed shelter, scout Hal Emas told the Des Moines Register.

Emas says he and a friend grabbed on to a picnic table and one of the metal poles left sticking in the ground.

"Everything was destroyed. The whole campsite was destroyed."

Camper Taylor Willoughby said several scouts were getting ready to watch a movie when one of them screamed that there was a tornado. While they ducked down, the twister struck, smashing windows.

Willoughby, who was treated at Burgess Health Center for a bruised back, said he saw a fellow scout with his head split open. "It was a pretty gruesome image."

Ethan Hession, 13, crawled under a table with a 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 NBC's "Today" show. "Then I just closed my eyes and all of a sudden it's [the tornado] gone."

The scouts told similar stories of what happened when the violence was over and bleeding scouts were left kneeling on the remains of the camp or buried in debris. They organized themselves and helped one another.

Hession described how one staff member took off his shirt and put it on a bleeding victim, applying pressure and gauze.

"We knew that we needed to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we needed to apply pressure and gauze. We had first aid kits, we had everything," Hession said.

'We got together and started undoing the rubble from the fireplace and stuff and were pulling kids out and waiting for the first responders," staff member Thomas White told CNN.

"We were able to get the kids calm. … All of that preparation and all of the scouting we've done helped out. It really paid off last night," White said.

Jessen said the scouts had actually prepared for just such a disaster a few days earlier.

"We just did a realistic first aid where somebody got dressed up in fake gash on his right arm, and he bursts through the door. So that pretty much helped the participants to know what to do for the tornado."

After news of the tornado, frantic scout leaders and parents rushed to the scene, desperately trying to find their loved ones.

"I prayed a lot and trusted that the leadership over there knew what they were doing," Jessen's mother, Gale Jessen, told "GMA." "I trust them with my life and my child's life."

The campers from Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, aged 13 to 18, and 25 staff members were attending a weeklong leadership training program at the camp which is described as a high adventure camp.

"We deal with tornadoes and they go through tornado drills when they're out at camp, and they have predesignated areas, low spots to go to," said scoutmaster Bruce Van Zuiden.

Rescue workers had to chop their way through downed branches to reach the camp.

At least 42 of the injured remain hospitalized with injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to major head trauma, according to Gene Meyer, Iowa's public safety commissioner.

Tornadoes also killed at least two people in northern Kansas, one found in a yard and another found outside a mobile home.

The twister destroyed much of the small town of Chapman, damaging the town's three schools and ripping part of the roof off the high school gymnasium. It also caused extensive damage on the Kansas State University campus, tossing cars and damaging buildings.

Ashely Phillips and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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