2009: Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Thursday, August 13, 2009
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting

Omaha World-Herald Staff

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'GOD HELP US': Boys had spent childhoods being trained

June 12, 2008

LITTLE SIOUX, Iowa – Boy Scout Ethan Hession wasn't scared until the windows shattered.

Sirens had blared. Lights in the cabin had blinked out.

The scoutmaster had burst in and yelled, "Everybody under the tables!"

Within seconds, Hession heard the sound of smashing glass and the deafening locomotive roar that means tornado. He felt glass rain down on his shoulders and back.

The 13-year-old crouched in a corner of a cabin at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch, elbows pressed against the concrete floor, hands covering his face. About 50 or so other members of the "Red Team" did the same.

Hession tried to close his eyes.

Something struck his head.

He felt his body lifted up, as if he were flying. He looked up, through a blinding white mist, and saw that the cabin's roof was gone.

"God help us!" yelled the boy next to Hession.

Then it was over. As quickly as it had come.

The tornado that ripped through the Little Sioux Scout Ranch showed the boys and their leaders, who have spent their young lives learning about the outdoors, just how fierce Mother Nature can be.

Earlier in the week, before the tornado drilled the camp, the Scouts drilled on what to do before, during and after a tornado.

So Wednesday night, when the clouds had parted and the chaos had passed, the Scouts took count of each other, just as they had practiced.

Forty-two people were hurt, most of them in the north cabin where Hession cowered.

Four Scouts died.

Laying under a table in that building, Zach Jessen, a 14-year-old leader of one of the eight-member patrols, said he "prayed and prayed" that everyone would survive.

Minutes later, he stood amid the rubble and took count of his patrol. Everyone was accounted for -- except for one -- a shy, 13-year-old from Omaha.

Scouts and Scout leaders were performing CPR, but to no avail. 

* * * 

Wednesday started like any other at the camp for budding Boy Scout leaders.

Several of the 13- to 18-year- olds -- many of them Eagle Scouts or on their way to becoming Eagle Scouts -- had spent their morning putting on presentations for the group.

Jessen's presentation: How to spot, and resolve, impending problems.

The presentation was timely. The camp had been hit by rain. The Scouts, who slept in tents, were getting weary.

Some kids were soggy. Some were homesick.

Thomas White, who has been going to the camp for five years, said the weeklong gathering is known for torrential downpours.

"We just had to get the kids over the hump," said White, an 18-year-old camp staffer from Blair.

The campers spent the afternoon on a high-tech treasure hunt -- using GPS devices to find hidden prizes on the camp's sprawling, 1,800-acre grounds.

With word that severe weather was coming Wednesday night, White and other camp staffers decided to give the kids a break. Instead of making each group cook its own dinner, the staff cooked it -- "mounds and mounds" of spaghetti.

The kids then could watch a movie -- either Frankenstein or James Bond.

The staff decided to serve the food early, about 5 p.m., before any storms hit from the system that White and others had been warned was coming.

White had seen weather reports on his laptop Wednesday morning. The park caretaker also had called and given word.

"Everyone thought we would get a lot of rain," White said. "But, I mean, no one really knew what else was coming." 

* * * 

About 6 p.m., Jessen could spot the impending problem in the southwestern sky.

He and several other Scouts gathered on the porch of the administration building, watching the lightning show.

Jessen was watching something else. A huge, dark, low-hanging cloud -- slowly starting to swirl.

Soon, the camp doctor's weather radio was blaring sounds of a tornado warning. The caretaker called with word that tornadoes had been spotted over the town of Little Sioux, about 15 miles to the south.

Suddenly, Rob Logsdon said, storm clouds shifted between two bluffs, near the entrance to the Scout camp.

"We could see a funnel cloud drop down, and it was heading right for us," the high school sophomore said.

Camp staffers sounded the alarm.

Jessen ushered several Red Team Scouts to the north cabin -- about a quarter-mile from the camp's administrative building.

Scouts on the Green Team rushed to the south cabin, also a quarter mile away.

White took a homesick child to the south cabin, then ran out to see if anyone was lagging behind.

White and an adult at the camp rushed to the side of an overweight child who was struggling to get to the south cabin.

Rain picked up. Air pressure dropped. White's ears began to pop, he said, and it felt as though the air was being sucked out of his lungs.

"Get down," the adult yelled.

With no ditch nearby, the three dropped into a shallow, foot-deep depression just to the side of a dirt road.

The tornado roared.

Branches crashed everywhere. A foot-thick branch fell from a huge oak and landed just beyond their feet.

White, a devout young man who also served as camp chaplain, started to pray.

"I was like, 'God, come on! This cannot be the way I gotta go.'"

Within seconds, air pressure returned. The tornado had churned past.

Dazed, White got up and stared at the devastation. Scores of 40-foot trees were uprooted. Others were stripped of leaves. Logs lay everywhere.

But he and the two others were fine.

"I thought if we didn't make it to shelter and we survived, it can't be that bad," White said. 

* * * 

In the north cabin, kids were scurrying for safety.

At the scoutmaster's command, Jessen dove under a table. Scouts and leaders rushed everywhere -- most of them trying to get under tables.

Jessen saw a fellow Scout close to his table. He pulled him down -- only to find that it was one of his best friends, Alex Norton from West Point, Neb.

Jessen threw his arm around another Scout under the table -- and braced himself.

The wind roared -- some said like a jet plane, others like a freight train. Jessen said it felt as if he was laying on the tracks as a freight train rumbled over.

The cabin doors blasted open.

"Just hold on. Just hold on," he told his buddies and himself. "It's almost over." 

* * * 

When it was over, Hession struggled to his feet. He joined an effort to free Boy Scouts trapped under the pile of rubble in the center of the destroyed north cabin. He moved rubble to free one boy.

A second boy had a gaping wound on his head. Hession ripped off his T-shirt and handed it to another Scout trying to stanch the blood.

Hession sat on the injured boy's legs to keep him from struggling as the third Scout pressed the shirt against the injured boy's head. It turned crimson.

Scouts barked commands.

Get the gauze!

I need a first aid kit!

The trapped boys screamed for help, but Ethan and the others couldn't reach all of them.

He saw one boy lying motionless in the debris. Rescue crews ran in -- maybe 10 minutes after the tornado hit, Hession said.

They moved the uninjured Scouts off to the side. Only then did he look around.

The walls had crumbled. The tables were smashed to bits.


A Ford Ranger pickup that had been parked outside was thrown as much as 100 feet, crashing into the cabin's chimney and raining cinder blocks onto the Scouts.


Jessen emerged from under his table to survey the damage -- and to count his eight-Scout patrol. Seven answered.

"My heart sank," said Jessen, of Hooper, Neb. "I didn't want to lose anyone. None of us did."

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'GOD HELP US': Fatal twister posed real-life trial for campers

June 12, 2008

As the humidity rose, clouds gathered and storm warnings sounded Wednesday, no thought was given to evacuating the Camp Cedars Scout Camp near Fremont, Neb., nor the Little Sioux Scout Ranch south of Sioux City, Iowa.

"We don't ever do that," said Lloyd Roitstein of Omaha, executive director of the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

"Scouts learn how to survive," he said. "That's what we do."

Roitstein wasn't second-guessing that decision nor the decisions about where to seek shelter that Scout leaders made at the Little Sioux camp. Four Scouts died there and more than 40 were injured inside a building smashed by a tornado, which was rated as at least an EF2.

"You pick the best possible location," Roitstein said after a daylight tour of the devastated 1,800-acre wilderness camp.

Given the torrential rains, camp leaders might have thought the two pavilions -- rustic cabins on concrete slabs -- offered the best protection, Roitstein said.

Minutes before the tornado struck, most of the 119 Scouts and leaders at the camp took shelter in the two multipurpose cabins. Earlier in the day, the Scouts had been scattered. They had returned to the main camp area as the storm approached. A few remained outside, watching the lightning show before diving into a low-lying area after they spotted the approaching tornado.

Those in one of the two cabins, known as north tower, took a direct hit.

It could have been worse, Roitstein said.

There was a ditch 200 yards from the pavilion, he said. "If they would have gone there, we would have many more dead." The tornado roared through that ditch, splintering and sending trees in all directions, he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency advises people to seek shelter in a building, preferably in an interior room of the lowest level, when tornadoes threaten.

All the Scouts had available to them was a big, open room. Most huddled under tables for extra protection.

No basements or storm cellars exist at the camp. Besides the two cabins, only a mess hall and a caretaker's house sit on the property. "They were not built to withstand the force of a tornado," Roitstein said.

FEMA also advises, as a last resort, finding a ditch or depression and putting your hands over your head for protection. The agency warns that flooding is an added risk in ditches.

"Flying debris from tornadoes causes most fatalities and injuries," FEMA warns those trying to survive a tornado outside a building.

The Pahuk Pride national leadership training program at the Iowa camp was organized to test survival and resiliency. Parents dropped off their Scouts for the weeklong event Sunday and were not to come back for their sons until Saturday.

The program is for Scouts 13 and older with a minimum of 12 nights of camping experience. The 94 Scouts who attended came from the 58 Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota counties that make up the Mid-America Council. They ranged in age from 13 to 17. Also present were 25 adults and youth leaders.

Although the Little Sioux camp is rustic and rugged, it is equipped with an emergency weather radio and a storm siren system. Both functioned Wednesday night.

Earlier in the week, the Scouts went through disaster training. On Wednesday, they were called on to put their training into practice.

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Lives Touched Many

June 12, 2008

Sam Thomsen always had a smile
By Steve Jordon  

Sam Thomsen, 13, loved the Boy Scouts, loved the Nebraska Cornhuskers and was enthusiastic about life.

"Sam is ready for a week in the great outdoors," he wrote on his page in Facebook, an online networking site, just before the training camp at the Boy Scouts' Little Sioux Scout Ranch.

Wednesday evening, Sam, the son of Larry and Sharon Thomsen of 10236 V St. and brother of Lindsay and Sara, was one of four Scouts killed when a tornado struck the camp.

"He's just a great kid," said Dr. Jim White, pastor of Southwest Church of Christ, where the Thomsen family is a longtime member. "He was a typical teenager, always has a smile on his face. He was just a joy to be around."

The family home-schools the children, White said. Sara just graduated from high school, and Lindsay attends Wheaton College.

Sam's Facebook page lists his interests as Jesus, football, the Huskers, playing Xbox video games and the Roadrunners, a basketball team for home-schooled children.

Sandy Glenn, who coached Sam's basketball team the past two years, said teammates, including older players, liked Sam, who wasn't tall but tried hard and improved tremendously when he moved up from the Roadrunners' 12-and-under team this year.

"Sam was probably one of the nicest kids you could ever be around, " Glenn said. "He was just enthusiastic, eager to learn, real coachable. He was just a wonderful kid. That's the part that breaks my heart.

"We'll miss his personality more than anything."

Family members and friends gathered at the Thomsen home overnight and this morning.

Larry Thomsen is a longtime Douglas County employee, supervising residential appraisers for the Assessor's Office and formerly with the Register of Deeds Office. Sharon Thomsen is a homemaker and does some work for the Hyatt Reservations Center, White said.

"The office is mourning and praying for the family," Assessor Roger Morrissey said.

Coach Glenn said Sam's family would come to watch the basketball games. "They're just a nice family. It's a brutal thing."

Losing children shouldn't happen, he said, "but the reality of life is that it does. It seems too far away until it happens to somebody that you know." 

Ben Petrzilka liked to hunt, fish
By Virgil Larson
June 12, 2008

Ben Petrzilka, who just finished seventh grade at Mary Our Queen Catholic School, was praised today as kind and caring.

Ben, 13, was one of four teens killed Wednesday night when a tornado hit a Boy Scout camp at Little Sioux, Iowa.

"I can tell you so many wonderful things about this kid," Principal Kayleen Wallace said. "He always gave it his best effort. It is a very devastating loss to the school."

Ben's parents are Bryan and Arnell Petrzilka. They have another son, Jackson, a preschooler.

The family belongs to Mary Our Queen Parish near 120th Street and West Center Road. The men's club at the church sponsors Troop 448. Ben had been a troop member for three years.

Bryan Petrzilka was a Cub Scout leader when Ben was a Cub, said Mike Kirk, a church member and family friend.

Steve Olson, the scoutmaster, had known Ben for years. Olson was a cubmaster when Ben became a Cub Scout in second grade.

"Great kid . . . a joy to have around . . . very well-liked," Olson said of Ben. "He was one of those who stood out . . . as a natural leader."

Olson said Ben loved the outdoors. The teen spent a lot of time hunting and fishing with his father.

Ben had reached Star rank and was assistant leader of the Ninja Patrol of Troop 448.

"He lived the Scout law," Kirk said.

Olson said two other members of the 42-member troop, Christian Jones, son of Connie Jones, and Zachary Schlegel, son of Gene and Deb Schlegel, were at the Little Sioux camp Wednesday night.

He said that Christian had some minor injuries and that Zachary was unhurt.

Aaron Eilerts loved to help others
By Leia Baez  
June 12, 2008 

Aaron Eilerts, 14, had endless talents, a good sense of humor and would go above and beyond whatever was asked of him.

"He was the kindest kid you could ever meet," said Dawn Sievertsen, principal of Robert Blue Middle School in Eagle Grove, Iowa.

Aaron was killed in a tornado Wednesday night at a Boy Scout camp near Little Sioux, Iowa. He was a member of Boy Scout Troop 108 in Humboldt, Iowa. He attended the camp to be a youth leader for the Boy Scouts Junior Leaders Training program.

"He was very outgoing and a very friendly kid," said Gerald Davis, scoutmaster of Troop 108. "He would do anything for anybody."

Rob Logsdon, a 15-year-old Boy Scout from Lawton, Iowa, said Aaron was buried beneath a chimney.

"Aaron and I were in charge of a group of seven other Scouts," Logsdon said. "He was a real good guy."

Aaron recently was runner-up for a character award out of about 40 nominees throughout Iowa.

"He embodied everything Scouting stands for," Sievertsen said. "He would start these projects to earn badges but took them very seriously and would continue them long after he earned the badge."

"There will be a lot of holes left in the community with his death," Sievertsen said.

Colby Gochanour, 14, will have one of those holes in his heart.

"We were best friends," he said. "He was always there."

The two enjoyed singing show tunes from "Wicked."

"We would be having a serious conversation but if there was a line from a song, we would break into it," he said. "He was a great singer and he adored music."

Especially Elvis.

"He was an Elvis fanatic," Gochanour said. "He had tons of Elvis CDs, and I think he had a few Elvis posters."

Aaron, who was an aspiring chef and planned to move to France, performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" at local sporting events when he wasn't on the field. He played football, ran cross-country and was in the school band and choir.

A prayer service was scheduled this afternoon at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Humboldt. 

Josh Fennen enjoyed exploring
By Dane Stickney
June 12, 2008

Josh Fennen was a confident, inquisitive 13-year-old with natural leadership abilities.

"He was a good student, a hard worker, and he was always trying to be creative," said Jeff Alfrey, principal at Andersen Middle School, where Josh recently finished eighth grade.

Josh died at a Boy Scout camp near Little Sioux, Iowa, on Wednesday night from injuries related to a tornado.

Alfrey wasn't surprised that Josh was at the camp, which focused on leadership training. The boy was adventurous and had a knack for exploring.

"I could see him thriving in the wilderness," Alfrey said. "I could see him being a great leader."

Josh didn't stand out physically. The dark-haired, brown-eyed boy was of average height and build for an eighth grader, Alfrey said. But his inquisitive nature separated him from other students. The principal talked to Josh just before school got out about refining his inventive skills.

"His mind was always working," Alfrey said. "He was always finding something new to do, something to experiment with."

Josh was scheduled to attend Millard South High School this fall. His sister, Erika, attends Millard West High School. His parents are Charles and Dorothy Fennen. The family moved from Denver to Omaha in 1997, when Charles was relocated through his job with Union Pacific Railroad.

The family -- which lives in northern Sarpy County near the path of Sunday's destructive tornado -- was unreachable this morning. Co-workers of Dorothy, who teaches English as a second language at Bryan Middle School in the Omaha school district, said officials from the Boy Scouts of America picked up family members this morning to take them to the Little Sioux area.

A family member in Texas had no comment.

Millard Public Schools counselors were at Millard South High School, 14905 Q St. today to assist staff, students and families in dealing with Josh's death. It's hard to cope with the situation, Alfrey said. "We have 800 students at the school, but something like this really hits home and shows you that every student is special," Alfrey said. "Our hearts go out to the family."

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