BLENCOE, Iowa - When the howling winds finally died down, the Boy Scouts - true to their motto, "Be Prepared" - sprang into action.
Putting their first-aid training to use, they applied tourniquets and gauze to the injured. Some began digging victims from the rubble of a collapsed chimney. And others broke into an equipment shed, seized chainsaws and other tools, and started clearing fallen trees from a road.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa,
battles historic flood. A9
Dozens of the Scouts, ages 13 to 18, were hailed for their bravery and resourcefulness yesterday, the morning after a twister flattened their camp in Iowa and killed four youths.
"There were some real heroes at this Scout camp," Governor 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 youths, 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," said Lloyd Roitstein, an executive with the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Killed were Aaron Eilerts, 14, of Eagle Grove, Iowa, and Josh Fennen, 13, Sam Thomsen, 13, and Ben Petrzilka, 14, all of Omaha. Roitstein said the four had taken shelter in a building that was leveled, and all of them were found near its collapsed stone chimney. The governor said the cause of death had not been determined.
At least a dozen people remained hospitalized yesterday with everything from bruises to spine and head injuries.
At the campsite, a pickup had been tossed on its side. Tree limbs rested on top of the Scouts' tents. Trees were flattened. And the one-room multipurpose building where the Scouts died was a pile of cinder blocks and chimney stones.
Boy Scout officials said the campers had heard the severe weather alerts but decided not to leave because a storm was on the way.
"They were watching the weather and monitoring with a weather radio, listening for updates," said Deron Smith, a national spokesman for the organization. "The spot they were at was the lowest spot of camp. It was deemed to be the safest place."
A group of Scouts who had set out on a hike had returned to the camp before the storm hit, Smith said.
Yesterday, tales of heroism emerged from the camp.
Roitstein said a group of Scouts pulled the camp ranger and his family from their destroyed home. Doug Rothgeb of Omaha said his 15-year-old son emerged from a ditch where he had taken cover, and then helped other Scouts 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, a TV, and 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 that 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."
Ethan Hession, 13, said he crawled under a table with his friend.
"I just remember looking over at my friend, and all of a sudden he just says to me, 'Dear God, save us,' " he recounted on NBC's "Today" show.
Ethan said the Scouts' first-aid training immediately compelled them to act.
"We were prepared," he said. "We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we need to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits. We had everything. We knew about this; we knew how to do it."
"All of a sudden people started taking action. Like it just clicked," he added. "One of the staff members took off his shirt and put it right on the guy who was bleeding and told me to get on top of him so he would stop moving so he could apply pressure and gauze. We started digging people out of the rubble."
The 1,800-acre Little Sioux Scout Ranch is in the Loess Hills in westernmost Iowa, close to the Nebraska line, about 40 miles north of Omaha. The hills rise 200 feet in what is otherwise an exceedingly flat state. While tornadoes are often associated with flat, open land, Iowa is in Tornado Alley, and forecasters said twisters are not unusual in the Loess Hills.
The National Weather Service said it was an EF3 on the 1-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado intensity, with an estimated wind speed of 145 miles per hour. The twister cut a path estimated at 14 miles long.