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A drill, then the real thing

The day before a deadly tornado tore through a Scout camp, leaders had instructed youths what to do in case of severe weather.

June 13, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter and DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writers

LITTLE SIOUX, IOWA — The mess hall at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch was still standing Thursday, its wood and metal tables still neatly lined up. Out front, an American flag lowered to half-staff fluttered in the breeze. For at least a mile up to it and beyond, a trail of debris -- mud and glass, mangled orange nylon tents and shredded camp gear -- littered what had been the Boy Scout camp.

At the broken entrance sign to the camp, 16-year-old Charles Bowerman gingerly ran his fingers over the gash on his face that still oozed blood.

The Eagle Scout had been here Wednesday night when the tornado tore through the campground, killing four teenagers and leaving 48 other people injured.

Bowerman had huddled inside the large tan wood-framed shelter with 50 or so other young campers -- and struggled to be brave, to not to cry out when the building collapsed on top of them.

He returned late Thursday hoping to find a few precious items in the chaos. A beloved history book. A wooden staff he carved when he joined the Scouts. A Bible given to him by a Scout mentor.

"I thought maybe if I could find those things, it'd help me feel like we hadn't lost absolutely everything this week," said Bowerman, who lives in Council Bluffs, Iowa. "I thought maybe it'd help me make sense of what happened."

He was among the 93 Scouts and 25 staff members who had spent the last several days here, camping beneath the stars as part of a weeklong leadership camp.

Just a day before the tornado, Scout leaders had told the youngsters what to do if severe weather hit the campground, located on a hilly, cedar-covered 1,800-acre property about an hour north of Omaha.

Leave your tent. Run to one of the few structures on the grounds -- such as the meeting hall with its sturdy stone fireplace. In a rural campground with no storm cellars, no basements and no tornado shelters, it seemed the best place to find safety.

It was the kind of drill these Scouts were familiar with: Tornadoes are a routine spring occurrence in their hometowns in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.

So around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, when some were on a hike and others were debating around a television set whether to watch "Young Frankenstein" or a Monty Python movie, the sound of a tornado siren was easy to recognize.

The hikers, too far away to head back to the camp, hunkered down and covered their heads with their hands. Outside, they were safe.

Others fled to the meeting hall, as they had practiced. There was no way they could have known that the hall would be pummeled by 100-foot trees and a crumpled red pickup truck -- and then would bury them in a mass of stone, splintered wood and chunks of cinder block.

"It ripped off the door. It ripped off the roof," Alex Robertson, 15, of Center, Neb., told the Omaha World-Herald. "I saw the chimney come down right next to me. It fell on people. . . . Then everyone was screaming for help."

Boy Scout officials on Thursday identified the dead as Aaron Eilerts, 14, of Eagle Grove, Iowa, and Ben Petrzilka, 14, Josh Fennen, 13, and Sam Thomsen, 13, all of Omaha.

Dozens remained hospitalized Thursday, some with severe injuries, according to Iowa officials.

"It looked like God took his hand and swatted the earth," said Lt. Jeff Theulen, a helicopter pilot with the Omaha Police Department's air support team. On Thursday morning, he flew over the campground as search teams scoured the debris to make sure no one had been left behind.

"All I could think was, 'My own son's off at a leadership camp this week,' " Theulen said. "I had to call home, to make sure he was all right."

Even when parents heard the news of Wednesday's tornado, many were trapped in their own homes by the threat of funnel clouds. Leigh and Rick Emas were in their Omaha basement Wednesday night with their 17-year-old son, Macklin, when the deadly storm system hit.

They watched TV updates on the storm -- which, from Kansas across to southern Minnesota, reportedly spawned 57 tornadoes -- and realized that it was heading directly into western Iowa, where their son Hal, 14, was at the Boy Scout leadership camp.

Around 7:10 p.m., Hal called his family on a borrowed cellphone. He was crying. He kept telling his mother, "Please come and get me, it's really bad here," Leigh Emas said.

Later, after he and his family were reunited early Thursday, he told her that after he hung up, he began helping his friends, picking through the rubble to find blankets and tending to those who were bleeding. All around him, the Boy Scouts and their leaders fell back on instinct.

Alex Robertson said he pulled chunks of debris off the injured and checked pulses. Jesse Rothgeb, a Scout from Millard, Neb., said he and two friends chopped down trees to reach the injured and helped give first aid while waiting for rescue crews.

"What else could we do? We did what we're trained to do," said Dave Jacobs, a troop leader who was at the camp Wednesday night. "It was all Scouts, helping themselves and helping each other."

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