Boy Scouts Brave Flood, Tornado, Lightning

Boy Scouts show they are prepared for floods, tornadoes, lightning.


Aug. 19, 2008 — -- Kyle Lai and his fellow Boy Scouts from New Jersey's Troop 21 turned down a rigorous "high-adventure" ranch in Philmont, N.M., for a tamer backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.

Or so they thought.

The six boys -- ages 11 to 13 -- were airlifted with their three troop leaders on Sunday from a canyon gorge as heavy rains and flood waters caused a dam to break near their campsite.

"They're in good shape, considering it was an emergency and they had no time to come up with an alternate plan," said Kyle's mother, Bridget Lai of Maplewood, N.J., whose husband Michael was one of the troop leaders evacuated.

This is the second incident this summer involving Boy Scout troops and the rage of Mother Nature. In June, four teens were killed and 48 were injured when a tornado touched down at a leadership camp in Iowa.

But mothers like Lai -- who send off boys barely out of elementary school to Boy Scout camp -- are undaunted by these disasters and say outdoor exploration is an important rite of passage.

The Boy Scouts' motto is "Be Prepared," but sometimes the weather leaves no time for training. In July, a 13-year-old and an assistant scoutmaster were electrocuted after a metal tent pole touched a power line in California.

And lightning struck a mountain shelter at a camp in Utah this month, killing one youth and injuring three others.

"It literally gives me goose bumps on my legs," said national child safety expert Alison Rhodes of Wilton, Conn., who is the mother of a 10-year-old Scout.

"One of the things I appreciate about the Boy Scouts is that parents are involved," she told "And they give kids the freedom to understand their limitations."

Indeed, Eileen Muench's husband, Kevin, was one of the troop leaders with her sons Colin, 13, and Tommy, 11. He has been a wilderness camper since he was 17, going on winter treks, staying in a lean-to structure.

The Maplewood, N.J., family had recently climbed Mt. Rainier in preparation for the Boy Scout trip to the Grand Canyon. The troop itself had trained by taking hikes in full packs, learning what can go wrong in a river and other emergencies.

"They were prepared," Muench told "This wasn't a willy-nilly thing."

"I knew they were in good hands," she said, even though her heart was in her throat that night. "I am a proud mother of scouts."

Lai said an older team from the same troop had chosen to carry their own gear and hike at high altitudes in New Mexico. But Kyle, 13, and the younger boys opted for the Grand Canyon.

"They'll have a story to tell and be able to compare when they get back," she said.

But one New York mother of two expressed anxiety about allowing boys that young to camp in such a remote region.

"It sounds extreme to me," said the 39-year-old, who wanted to remain anonymous. "I would be concerned about going places only accessible by helicopter or anywhere I couldn't reach him quickly."

Her son had attended sleep-away academic camps just a few hours away in Washington, D.C., and in Massachusetts, but a trip west was out of the question.

"Kids that age don't have the judgment or the wisdom," she said. "They are in a transitioning phase when they are still not adults. I don't think I would have sent my kids, especially when you are talking about the forces of nature."

Lai admits she had felt some initial trepidation.

"It's the same way you feel when a child gets their license and starts driving on their own or when you put them on an airplane to go somewhere," Lai said. "You have all the reflections you normally have."

"But, I have faith in them," she said.

Much of that faith Lai attributes to the Boys Scouts, which were founded by 20th century British Army officer Robert Baden-Powell. While stationed in India, he discovered that his men did not know first aid or basic outdoor survival. So he wrote a handbook highlighting resourcefulness, adaptability and leadership and formed the first troop in 1907.

Charles Bowerman of Council Bluffs, Iowa, joined the Scouts as a Cub, but was put to the test this summer as a 16-year-old Eagle Scout. He helped his fellow campers survive the tornado at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in Iowa.

The doors and roof of their meeting house were ripped off as it was pummeled by 100-foot trees and its stone walls and chimney caved in on top of the Scouts.

"Some said they heard a train, but I didn't hear anything." he told "I didn't believe we were going to be hit, but I knew the drill. Get into shelter. I was in the back of the room saying, 'Don't panic,' and making sure everyone got under the table."

Charles was the last to dive under the table and sustained a gash in his head and some other minor bruises. The tornado pushed him off the foundation and onto the grass 10 feet from where he started.

"I didn't hear anything. I just saw the gray," said Charles, whose close friend died in the disaster.

"For a century, Scouts have been the ones responding and helping others in their disasters," he told "This was the first time we had to turn to help ourselves."

Only two weeks after the Iowa tornado hit, Charles went to a different Boy Scout camp in Nebraska and had another close call when hurricane-force winds hit the site.

"At a couple of points, as it blew through our tents, another boy in the troop and I freaked out a little," he said. "But everybody's been fine after that."

"Our going to Camp Cedars was our way of telling the weather to stick it," Charles said wryly.

Not one of the boys who experienced the tornado dropped out of the council, he said.

His mother, though, was anxious when her son was ready to camp again. "Part of her wanted me to stay home, but she wasn't against me going," he said. "There was nervousness, but that's understandable."

But she soon relented.

"He was prepared," Theresa Bowerman, 42, told "They were trained how to handle it. Every single boy from group said they were all glad it hit there. They knew what to do."

A week after the disaster, her 11-year-old daughter was scheduled to go to a church camp just north of the tornado site. "If it had hit that church camp, would they have been prepared?" she asked. "Could the leadership have handled it?"

Meanwhile, as Bridget Lai and Eileen Muench wait for their husbands and sons to return from the Grand Canyon, they have no regrets about agreeing to the Boy Scout trek.

"This is what it's all about," Lai said. "They have to grow up and, unfortunately, the trip got cut short. But they are all OK and hopefully they relied on each other and learned a lot from the experience and want to go on another adventure."

Muench said all her fear evaporated when she got the 1 a.m. call from her son early Monday that he had been lifted out in a Black Hawk helicopter.

"Mom, it was so cool," Colin gushed.