Families, Troops Mourn 4 Scouts Killed In Tornado

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- First came the shock, then the grief. As dozens of people injured in a tornado at an Iowa Boy Scout camp recovered, families and friends tried to make sense of the deaths of four teenage Scouts who had gone to the elite camp to learn how to be leaders.

At a vigil held in an Omaha park Thursday night, people wiped tears from their eyes as Scout leaders weaved through the crowd asking, "Did you have any there?"

"It's hard to wrap your brain around it," scoutmaster Doug Rothgeb said earlier. "It's something that as parents and scouters, we know the risks. We know the boys know what they're doing. Those four boys ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong time. It's all Mother Nature."

Rothgeb's troop spent Thursday in Omaha, comforting the family of 13-year-old Josh Fennen, a troop member who was killed in the twister. The tornado - which the National Weather Service said packed winds of around 145 mph - destroyed a building where the group had taken shelter.

The family of another victim, 14-year-old Ben Petrzilka, put their grief into action. They set up funds at two banks to raise money to build underground storm shelters at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch, said John Nordmeyer, Petrzilka's uncle.

The 1,800-acre camp is in the Loess Hills in westernmost Iowa, close to the Nebraska line, about 40 miles north of Omaha.

Others killed in the tornado were Aaron Eilerts, 14, of Eagle Grove, Iowa, and Sam Thomsen, 13, of Omaha. All four were found near the collapsed stone chimney of the multipurpose building where Scouts gathered to socialize, said Lloyd Roitstein, an executive with the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

At least 12 people remained hospitalized late Thursday, including four who were in serious but stable condition at Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

"All things considered, they're doing well," hospital spokesman Mike Krysl said. "Our doctors are optimistic that they'll be recovering."

Dozens of the Scouts, ages 13 to 18, were hailed for their bravery and resourcefulness in the moments after a twister flattened their camp.

"There were some real heroes at this Scout camp," Gov. Chet Culver said, adding that he believes the Scouts saved lives while they waited for paramedics to cut through the trees and reach the camp a mile into the woods.

The 93 boys, all elite Scouts attending a weeklong leadership training session, had taken part in a mock emergency drill with 25 staff members just a day before the twister hit.

"They knew what to do, they knew where to go, and they prepared well," Roitstein said.

Boy Scout officials said the campers had heard the severe weather alerts but decided not to leave because a storm was on the way. A group of Scouts who had set out on a hike had returned to the camp before the storm hit, said Deron Smith, a national spokesman for the organization.

The camp includes hiking trails through narrow valleys and over steep hills, a 15-acre lake and a rifle range.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff toured the camp and said it appeared that the Boy Scouts "didn't have a chance" and that the tornado came through the camp "like a bowling ball."

On the other side of the state, 3,200 homes were evacuated in flood-stricken Cedar Rapids, where rescuers removed people with boats, officials estimated 100 blocks were under water and a railroad bridge over the flooded Cedar River collapsed.

In Albert Lea, Minn., 90 miles south of Minneapolis, a man died Thursday after his vehicle plunged from a washed-out road and was submerged in floodwaters.

Also Thursday, several Kansas communities began cleaning up from tornadoes a day earlier that killed at least two people, destroyed much of the small town of Chapman and caused extensive damage on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, tales of heroism emerged from the Iowa camp.

Roitstein said a group of Scouts pulled the camp ranger and his family from their destroyed home. Rothgeb said his 15-year-old son emerged from a ditch where he had taken cover, then joined other Scouts to break into the equipment shed.

Fourteen-year-old Zach Jessen of Fremont, Neb., said that before the storm struck, someone spotted the rotation in the clouds and a siren sounded in the multipurpose building, which had tables and a TV in addition to a fireplace. Jessen said he and others managed to get Scouts out of their tents and indoors just before the tornado hit. According to Roitstein, the Scouts took shelter in three buildings.

Jessen said shortly afterward, the door on the multipurpose building flew open and he heard someone yelling to get under the tables.

"All of a sudden, the tornado came and took the building," Jessen said. "It sounded like a giant freight train going right over the top of you."

Lisa Petry, the mother of 13-year-old Boy Scout Jose Olivo, said she had a bad feeling Wednesday morning when she heard reports of possible severe weather. "I thought, `Should I call the Scout camp and ask if there's severe weather, where will they go?'" she said.

The governor would not address questions about whether the Scouts should have remained at the campground after severe weather alerts were issued.

"There's always lessons learned from any natural disaster, from any tragedy," Culver said. "We need to focus on the victims, the families affected."


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