Tragedy and Triumph
“This is probably the worst day of my life—and probably the best day of my life.”
—Lloyd Roitstein, Scout Executive, Mid America Council, BSA
On June 11, 2008, an EF3 tornado with an estimated wind speed of 145 miles per hour, tore through Scout Camp Little Sioux located on the western side of the state of Iowa, leaving four Scouts dead and forty injured. This report is an attempt to sort out what happened, and seek whatever knowledge that can be gained from this event. This is the result of reviewing news accounts, long experience and knowledge of the workings of the Scouting movement, and some experience in emergency services. Other scouters assisted me in this analysis as well as three personal friends who are not connected with the scouting movement—a retired college professor, a retired US Marine Lieutenant Colonel and Vietnam veteran, and a middle school guidance councilor. All helped me to evaluate this event.
I have attempted to compile the news reports into a reasonable sequence of events, interlocking the stories where possible. I have made every attempt to preserve what accuracy is available, to add nothing. Comments appear in italics.
More information may become available. There are many untold stories yet to be heard, but what has already been revealed is consistent and will likely stand.
The camp was occupied with 92 scouts attending a National Youth Leader Training program. This is a program, locally called Pohuck Pride, to which different troops send their best and most experienced troop members for intensive training in all aspects of Scouting. These Scouts are expected to become or improve as leaders within their respective troops. In this environment, the Scouts role-play in mock troops, functioning as leaders in the various leadership tasks necessary to a Scout troop. To attend, they have to be 13 years of age or older, First Class rank or better, and have their Scoutmaster’s recommendation. They are the elite of Scouting.
They were roughly half way through the week long exercise. New friends and relationships had been formed, and the boys were functioning as expected. There were ninety two scouts in camp, and twenty five leaders. (Note that “leaders” in Boy Scout parlance does not necessarily mean adult.) They were divided into two distinct groups, with Red occupying the North end of the camp, and Green the south. It was the north camp that received the hit.
The day before, the boys had participated in a mock disaster. Wednesday morning had been spent with the more experienced Scouts putting on presentations. Zack Jessen, Star Rank, age 14, offered “How to spot and resolve impending problems.” The afternoon had been occupied with a treasure hunt—using GPS receivers to help locate the prizes which were scattered over the camp’s 1,800 acres.
On that day, almost the entire state was under some form of tornado alert. The hikers had returned a bit early because of the predicted storms. (These youths were raised in tornado territory, and were well aware of the danger; they knew well the protective measures to be taken in such an event. The boys were watchful as we shall see.)
That evening, in deference to the constant rain and drooping spirits and with storms again predicted, the camp staff cooked an early supper for all—mounds and mounds of spaghetti. For once, the boys did not have to prepare their own evening meal. A movie was planned for later in the evening.
It was about 6:30 Wednesday evening, and the boys were relaxing, Some Scouts were in their tents, resting, napping, visiting. Brian Moore, 13, was in his tent reading the latest Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows. Cody Van Zuiden, 13, was on the porch of the North camp building, playing cards.
Some Scouts and leaders—Zack Jessen and Rob Logden of the red team among them—were outside the administration building watching the approaching storm. They were the first to see the rotation start within the cloud.
Somebody triggered the alarm siren.
Zack Jessen left immediately to get his patrol rounded up and into the north shelter, a quarter mile away. Zack got the boys in his care out of the tents and into the big multi-purpose building. Brian came running, book in hand.
Some did not make it to shelter in time. Jessie Ogden, 15, rode the storm out in a ditch. Others, too far away to reach their assigned shelter, also took to a ditch. Devin Klink and his group did not hear the alarm, but quickly became aware of the situation, and ran for their lives through the hard rain and wind. “It was every man for himself,” he said. They made it out of the path of the storm.
Between fifty and sixty members of the red team had crowded into the one room building which was constructed of cinder block and wood, with a large stone chimney on one of the walls, waiting. The lights went out.
A leader went outside, returned immediately and yelled for the Scouts to get under the tables.
Cody Van Zuiden dived under a table with six other Scouts. Ethan Hession, 13, took shelter in a corner of the building, elbows on the floor, hands over his face.
Zack Jessen got under a table, saw a Scout nearby, and pulled him down, only then recognizing him as a close friend, Alex Norton. Zack lay on top of Alex and put his arm around another Scout. Sam Thompson, Josh Fennen, Ben Petrzilka, all 13, and Aaron Eilerts, 14, took shelter at the base of the chimney. Christian Jones, also 13, was beside them.
The door blew open. The windows shattered. Something hit Ethan on the head. Cody curled into a fetal position, his hands covering his head. Brian covered his face with his book as debris pelted it. The 13 year old scout next to Ethan looked toward him and cried out, “Dear God, help us!”
The roof was gone. Some Scouts looked up, seeing only a white fog. Some saw a vehicle pass over. Cody peeked: the air was filled with flying debris. He saw others beginning to look around. “Keep down!” he cried.
Debris beat down on Zack Jessen’s back. Alex Robertson, 15, was blown across the floor; he grabbed onto what little remained of the building’s wall.
Then Christian and Alex saw the chimney fall. The four boys below were crushed.
It was over.
One scout claims to have timed the storm at eight seconds. In that time, the building was flattened, the roof gone. Two scouts reported the sound of screams, loud screams. Jessen said later that he would never forget that sound. A pickup had blown into the stone chimney, collapsing it upon the four boys below. Ninety percent of the boys in that building were injured. Four were dead. It was chaos.
But not for long…
(At this moment, the Scouts of the red team of “Pohuck Pride” were forced to fall back on their own resources. The nature of the program is such that there were very few adults in camp, and of these, only a very small number were available to red team at that moment. The mile long entrance road into camp was blocked by fallen trees, further delaying assistance.)
As Ethan Hession explained to the reporter later, “We were prepared”, he said. “We knew that we had to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew about this, we knew how to do it. All of a sudden people started taking action. Like it just clicked.”
Rob Logden, 15, called his patrol over. He saw that his partner, Aaron Eilerts, lay still. He had a deep head wound. It didn't look good. It wasn’t. Rob started digging out trapped scouts, but was forced to quit because his hip had been displaced, causing him severe pain. He was carried to safety by his patrol.
Patrol leader Zack Jessen emerged from under the table to survey the damage and take count his eight Scout patrol. Everyone was accounted for--except for one-- the quiet 13 year old from Omaha. “My heart sank” said Jessen later. “I didn’t want to loose anyone—none of us did”. (Not clear, but the missing Scout appears to have been Sam Thompson.)
Christian Jones had seen the chimney fall, and dug in to it to get to his best friend, Ben Petrizlka. Christian related that he looked OK, but he wasn’t. He turned his attention to helping the injured.
Jessie Ogden climbed out of the ditch and with two other Scouts, pulled the Camp Ranger, Nate Dean and his wife, Tammy, and their three children out of their ruined house. Together they then forced their way into the locked storage shed, loaded the chain saws onto the 4 wheeler, and headed toward north camp, cutting their way through fallen trees as they went. These Scouts joined in the rescue upon arrival.
Ethan Hession helped with a group of boys to pull one Scout out of the fallen cinder blocks, and was then called by a leader who was attempting to use his shirt to bandage an injured Scout. The leader instructed Ethan sit on the boy to hold him still. Ethan ripped off his own T shirt which was then used to bandage a severe cut on the scouts head. It quickly turned crimson.
According to Ethan, Scouts barked commands, “I need a first aid kit!” “Get me some. gauze!”
Jacob Wilkenson, 13, who was not injured, moved to help his friend, Kevin Hanna, 13, who was partially buried in broken bits of the building. He got him free, but Kevin still could not stand. His pelvis was broken. Jacob secured a broken chair, sat Kevin in it. He checked him for life threatening injuries.
Finding none, he went over to where another Scout was using his hands to control the bleeding from a very large scalp wound on Scout Jose Olivo,13. Jacob relieved that boy because he saw that that Scout had a broken leg. Jacob called for a pack with water. A Scout brought it to him. He gave some to Jose. He then got a shirt from somebody and used that to help control the bleeding. Jose later reported that Jacob had asked him his name, where he lived, and information about his pet. When relieved, Jacob helped the boy with the broken leg to the camp administration building which was still intact.
Dustin Maassen, 15, stood up to find most of his group OK. Dustin reported seeing 10 to 15 scouts caught in the debris, barely moving and severely injured. Dustin stayed by one boy for 30 minutes, keeping him awake. “I just had to keep him awake” he said. Dustin himself had suffered minor injuries.
David Steinkruger,13, his back bruised, reported seeing kids in agony, going into shock. “We found one boy trapped under some stuff, and I pulled him out. His teeth were pretty badly busted up, I think he may have a broken pelvis. The adrenaline was pumping! I know that if I tried to do it today, I probably wouldn’t be able to lift all those heavy stones and things that I was lifting. I don’t have a Scout uniform. A lot of the boys were going into shock and were shaking really bad, so I took off my uniform and wrapped it around one of them.”
“I prayed with a bunch of kids. That is all we could do. Some kids we couldn’t do anything for. They were trapped, or just too bad, and I just remember that feeling of not being able to help them at all.”
Later, a Scout praised another Scout from Council Bluffs who had administered CPR .
A few Emergency responders got there fairly quickly by coming in on foot, estimated at ten minutes later. They saw something they did not expect. The 13,14, and 15 year old Scouts had set up a triage, and were administering first aid to their own, tearing up their uniforms to make bandages. The emergency personnel gradually began to take over from the boys as their number increased, handling the worst cases.
Scouts shuttled back and forth, carrying the injured on stretchers to later arriving vehicles.
Alex passed out blankets. Christian Jones helped to sort the injured into groups.
Information as to the response to the call for help is hard to come by. Even if the first responders arrived on foot in 10 minutes as Jessen estimates, the full force of the rescue effort was much delayed by the blocked entrance road. The formidable task of moving forty injured kids takes time. Moving two every ten minutes would take more than three hours. The Scouts and their parents faced a very long and anxious night. Scout officials worked diligently and carefully, tracing the whereabouts and condition of each Scout. Compounding the problem was the dispersal of the injured to different medical facilities, with a few moved yet again for specialized services.
The parents were directed to a community center in the town of Little Sioux where they waited for hours for news of their boys. Bruce Van Zuiden waited till midnight to hug his son, Cody. Doug Rothgab waited six hours to hear that his son Jessie was unhurt. Brian Moore got a call through on a borrowed cell phone at 12:30. The number of parents in the room slowly thinned, until four were left. It was not a pretty sight. At 2:30, the Thompsons were taken aside.
When Cody got home, he chose to sleep in the basement rather than in his bed room. He felt safer there.
Brian arrived home with the clothing he had on and his Harry Potter book. The Moore family spent Thursday morning buying replacements for what Brian lost in the tornado—camping gear, his tent, clothing, and sleeping bag.
Zack Jessen was up early the next morning. He met with Iowa Governor Chet Culver, his scuffed Scout uniform displaying a lodge patch and Star Scout insignia. His arm was discolored, his back a mass of bruises.
A Scout in relating his experience to reporters remarked that he was glad it happened to us and not someone else.
Scout Christian Jones attended a vigil held in honor of the Scouts that had lost their lives. He did not smile, he did not cry. “We have to remember,” Jones said, “We have to make sure that people remember.” He knew three personally, calling Josh Fennan who had been the leader of his patrol the first day of camp “a natural leader”. Sam Thompson was described as “well trained”. Ben Petrzilka was his best friend and Scouting companion. Both were members of the same troop, 448.
Cub Scouts in dark blue uniforms swarmed around Christian. He shook hands with each, told them to “be your best---stay in Scouts.” He reported that the first days were great fun,-- that he would try to remember the good times. “Scouting is the best thing on earth” he said.
On Saturday, Jacob Wilkinson stopped by the hospital as he was leaving for a Boy Scout High Adventure Camp in Minnesota. He visited with Jose Olivo and Kevin Hanna, Scouts that he had assisted in the aftermath of the tornado. They compared stories. As to the upcoming summer camp, Jacob said “It is all about getting back out there.”
Jacob’s mother, Tonya Wilkinson, said being in Boy Scouts and participating in outdoor activities is important to her son. She expressed no reservations about letting her son go to the next camp.
Michael Abell, released from the hospital and recovering at home from broken ribs, a broken collar bone and a broken vertebrae, is looking forward to attending Scout camp in July. He also intends to walk down the isle with his mother next Saturday. His parents are finally getting married.
In most disasters, fault can be found within some leader, system, or administration that failed, either in terms of preparation or response. The handling of the Hurricane Katrina is a good example. In this case, (the Monday Morning Quarterbacks not withstanding) no fault has at this point been discovered. All practical precautions were taken in advance. Response was as swift as conditions would allow, and with an impressive array of equipment and personnel. Medical services appear to have been up to the task.
In evaluating this event, however, one should consider that this group was at that time attending a leadership school for select Boy Scouts, and that these boys had completed half of the week long school. Their training included the handling of an emergency situation. For most of the boys, this was their first foray into leadership training.
One should note that in the history of Scouting, there has never been a hit of this magnitude unless it occurred in Europe during the horror of WW II. The degree of destruction, the frequency and severity of injuries defies comprehension. Estimates range to 90% injuries within the immediate population that occupied the destroyed multi purpose building.
Also of note, some of these boys worked through great personal loss. Christian Jones uncovered the body of his best friend, but carried on. Zack Jessen realized very early on that he had lost a member of the patrol that was his responsibility. Rob Logden saw his partner lying amid the remains of the chimney. Yet he carried on, keeping his patrol together.
Also notable was that had there been any pre-established chain of command in place prior to the destruction of the building, such would have been negated by the effective loss of the services of such a large number of members because of the injuries and deaths sustained.
Note also that the usual training that a Scout receives as to preparing for emergencies, it is assumed that the boy will go from a stable situation into an unstable situation. In this case, these Scouts came from within an unstable situation and restored order, and did so without appreciable external support.
Due to the nature of the program, true adult presence was minimal. Leadership being provided by boys is the means of obtaining the desired effect of the NYLT program.
The blocked entrance road extended the time the boys were required to depend on whatever resources they had at hand and within themselves.
To accomplish what they did, the establishment of an organized effort was essential. Such an organization, informal but effective, was much in evidence as the Scouts began to take charge of the situation. There is good evidence that some of the pre-existing patrols did survive somewhat intact, but the larger organization had to arise on the spot.
So one is well advised to consider this a test, not just of the boys, but a test of the Scouting method, which, in this case is presented in as pure a form of Scouting as can be devised. The evidence clearly shows that the test was passed and by a very large margin.
Unfortunately, it was gained at the cost of the lives of four of our very finest Scouts.
What then are the ingredients that lead to that end? A through knowledge of first aid was quite evident, not only in its simplest form but also including the handling of a larger disaster situation. Still, this is not enough, for without the ability of the less severely injured to quickly coalesce into a functioning entity, the events described to the press could not have taken place.
The clue was provided by the retired professor, who described it as a self compensating system. In such a system, the individual members contribute to the whole by way of whatever they do best. As the situation changes, the functions change, and the persons best able to perform that needed function come to the surface and take the lead. This is quite evident in the actions of a typical Scout patrol as it goes about its business around camp, cooking, fire building, cleaning up. The patrol leader keeps his patrol directed toward the desired end.
The Lieutenant Colonel confirmed this, adding however that such will not work without a sense of mission. If that is not present, egos get in the way. One can observe this by reading over the forgoing accounts, and if a Scouter, watching his charges as they function in the manner described.
In a properly run troop, a new scout is gently encouraged to function in this manner from day one through the application of the patrol method, the foundation stone of the Scouting experience. By the rank of First Class, that practice has become deeply engrained, so much so as to not be thwarted by a hit from a force 3 tornado.
Then there is the mission: “Be prepared,” reads the Scout motto. “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight,” reads the Scout Oath. This is the “mission” exemplified by the unnamed Scout, crippled by a broken leg, using his bare hands to apply direct pressure to the bleeding scalp wound on the head of another Scout, possibly saving that Scout’s life.
On June 11, at 6:32 PM, in the Little Sioux Scout Camp, Mid-America Council, it all came together, paying off in lives saved, hurting and terrified Scouts comforted, in the strength to face grief, and in renewed confidence in one’s self and in the future.
Scouting works. The boys of Pohuck Pride proved it.
Lord Baden-Powell was a genius.