LITTLE SIOUX, Iowa — Frantic parents pounded their fists against a wall or buried their heads in their hands Wednesday night as they awaited word on the fate of sons attending a rustic Boy Scout camp that was hit by a tornado.
Early reports indicated that four boys had died and 35 to 40 more had been injured at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in Monona County, Iowa, according to the National Weather Service and the Harrison County dispatch office.
The number of dead had not been confirmed at about 11 p.m., said Russ Lawrenson, a spokesman for the Mondamin (Iowa) Fire Department.
No information was available on the strength of the tornado that hit the camp, but the camp reportedly was wiped out.
“Sights I’ve seen, I’m never going to forget,” said Trevor Ruffcom, a 14-year-old Boy Scout who went into the camp to help after the tornado hit.
The boys staying at the camp were from eastern Nebraska, western Iowa and South Dakota. Some were reportedly from Omaha. The boys ranged in age from 13 to 18 years old.
The ages of those killed were not known.
Parents of the boys gathered in nearby Little Sioux, Iowa, as word of the disaster spread, and emergency crews and police streamed into the area to evacuate survivors and locate victims. Parents were desperate for information, as they talked on cell phones or buried their heads in their hands.
“They’ve got no information from anyone on no specific boys,” said one distraught parent who gathered at Nealy Hall in Little Sioux. “We’re getting contradictory reports. Unfortunately, neither the Scoutmaster nor anyone else has any information.”
At about 9:30 p.m., a hearse left the camp.
About 90 boys and 12 Scout leaders were attending a program at the camp, which is about one hour north of Omaha amid 1,800 acres of timberland.
The ruggedness of the camp was said to be hampering the rescue. Rescuers were scouring the countryside looking for possible victims. There was reportedly no cell phone reception at the camp, which is about 15 minutes outside Little Sioux.
A Scout leader familiar with the camp described it as a tent camp with a few buildings. The buildings were out in the open and unprotected by trees.
Most of the buildings at the camp were destroyed, according to Lloyd Roitstein, executive director of Mid-America Council, Boy Scouts of America.
Scores of ambulances, police and emergency personnel from neighboring counties raced to the scene after the tornado hit at about 6:35 p.m.
“It was a very hectic scene,” said one state trooper.
The hospitals in Sioux City, Iowa, went into full-scale disaster alert. Medicalhelicopters took to the sky, without waiting for the storm to entirely subside, to pick up two injured boys.
About 11:30 p.m. Burgess Medical Center in Onawa and Community Memorial Hospital in Missouri Valley were expecting patients to arrive on buses.
The parents who gathered at Nealy Hall were told that firstresponders at the scene were trying to gather names and would let parents know as soon as they had definite information. Some parents slumped against walls. Others pounded their fists against the walls as they anxiously waited for word.
A few were lucky enough to get a call from their sons.
“I can’t tell you how relieved I feel,” said Charleen Willoughby, a Bellevue woman who got a call Thursday evening from her son, Taylor, 13.
Al Jessen of Fremont, Neb., got a call from his son, Zach, 19, a staff leader at the camp, soon after the storm hit. “He called his mom and said, ‘I’m OK, but a lot of boys from the troop were badly hurt.'”
In Omaha, phones at the Mid-America Council, Boy Scouts of America, headquarters in west Omaha were ringing constantly. Officials couldn’t tell parents anything. They were taking numbers. As soon as they knew something, they told the parents, they would let them know.
After the tornado hit, the Boy Scout council quickly put out an alert to other Scouts in the area to help, and dozens of people gathered outside the camp to offer aid.
Volunteers were asked to meet at the city park in Little Sioux.
The tragedy capped a month of twisters and terror in the Midlands that first claimed lives on May 25, when six people died in Parkersburg, Iowa.
The deadly storm also came less than four days after two tornadoes tore a path of destruction in southwest Omaha, ripping off roofs and knocking down trees. No one died in Saturday’s tornadoes in Omaha.
Terry Landsvork, observation program manager with the National Weather Service office in Valley, said the Boy Scouts had a warning 12 minutes before the tornado hit the camp.
“People over there said they had plenty of warning, they just didn’t have anywhere to put them,” Landsvork said.
The weather service facility in Valley was struck by lightning, knocking out its radar. Landsvork, however, said that didn’t affect the weather service’s ability to track the storm because it were getting a feed from the weather service in Des Moines and Sioux Falls, S.D.
Dan Hunt, a member of the Mid-America Council executive committee, said the boys were at the camp for Pohak Pride, a leadership training program.
“This is really their first foray into leadership training,” he said.The boys learn how to organize patrols of six to 10 boys and organize Scout meetings.