Facing Death, Four Scouts Became Heroes

Teen survivors showed leadership in face of destruction that killed peers.

ByABC News
June 12, 2008, 6:32 PM

June 12, 2008— -- When the Boy Scouts from Troop 104 arrived at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in Iowa on Sunday, they expected challenges, but nothing like this.

In a furious moment, Boy Scouts Zach Jessen and Blake Walling came face-to-face with an unanticipated twister, which decimated the cabin where they and dozens of other scouts had been huddled.

"They saw a rotation in the clouds," Jessen recounted. "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."

Boy Scout Zach Jessen said he never imagined his training would come into play this suddenly and in this tragic turn of events.

"Lights went out, everybody started screaming, scoutmaster popped in and yelled, 'Get under the tables, get under the tables!'" Jessen said, replaying the horrific scene.

Jessen said he heard screaming amid the roar of wind and rain, along with the whir of rocks rushing past his head and smashing against the table where he crouched, his body shielding a fellow scout's head. As the cabin gave way, he felt bricks, rocks and wood hit his back, while other debris flew over him.

"At that point I was thinking, 'Oh god, here I come just can I have one more shot at life?'" Jessen remembered thinking. "I saw some people not even moving, and I was thinking, 'Please don't be dead. Please don't be dead.'"

Jessen was in charge of a group of eight boys. One of the boys, Ben Petrzilka, 13, died, trapped under a chimney.

The tornado took the lives of three other teenagers. They were identified as Aaron Eilerts, 14, from Eagle Grove, Iowa; and Josh Fennen, 13, and Sam Thomsen, 13, of Omaha.

When things grew still, Walling said he was scared, but his primary reaction was one of disbelief.

"I stand up and I look around and I see there's no tents around, there's trees in half, and you can still hear trees snapping over," Walling recalled, still a bit numb. "I couldn't really believe that all of this was actually happening, you know."