Boy Scouts Perseverance Put To Test

December 1, 2005       Marla Nobles      

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) were anything but “ready and prepared” for what the summer of 2005 wrought. Seven separate incidents of injury and death, ranging from electrocution to being crushed by a fallen oak tree, searing heat that disabled more than 300 people, and an emergency landing, dealt the BSA one blow after another.

“I don’t recall another time when tragedies have happened this frequently,” said BSA spokesperson Gregg Shields. “It is very unusual.”

On July 23, just two days prior to the kickoff of the 2005 National Boy Scout Jamboree, held at Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County, Virginia, security staff volunteer Albert Puff, 57, died of an apparent heart attack. The retired North Carolina man was an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 61 in Newport, N.C. He was also a board member of the Western Carteret Fire & EMS Department where he was a volunteer EMT for 14 years.

Of this tragedy, Shields said there was no way of predicting or preventing it. “We require all of our volunteers who go to the Jamboree to get a physical before they attend,” said Shields.

This was just a hint of what was to follow. In the coming days, crippling heat, injury and death would further haunt the Jamboree.

Incorporated in 1910, BSA serves nearly 5 million young people between the ages 7 and 20 years, and is the nation’s largest youth-serving organization, said Shields. For 10 days every four years since 1937, more than 35,000 Boy Scouts and leaders from nearly 900 troops around the nation, along with more than 7,000 volunteers, assemble to celebrate Scouting tradition. This past summer, the 2005 National Boy Scout Jamboree was held, as it has been for the past 24 years, at the 76,000-acre Army post, Fort A.P. Hill.

On July 24, four troop leaders were killed when they lost control of a tent pole they were installing and it struck an overhead power line. The victims, Michael J. Shibe, 49, Mike Lacroix, 42, and Ronald H. Bitzer, 58, all of Anchorage, Alaska, and Scott Edward Powell, 57, of Perrysville, Ohio, were asked by contractors to help set up a pole in the center of a large, white dining tent. The two contractors were injured in the incident; one other Alaska man, troop leader Jay Lawrence Call, 43, suffered minor injuries.

Of the youths who bore witness to the tragedies: “All the kids with the Alaska group are fine,” said Bill Haines, scout executive director and CEO of the Western Alaska Council. The Council oversees three Alaska camps including Camp Gorsuch, where Powell was program director for 29 years before retiring and moving to Ohio in 2004. “The Scouts were relocated to an army barracks, and chaplains and grief counselors were made available,” Haines added.

“Never in our history have we had five fatalities at a Jamboree,” said Shields.

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division ( CID) is investigating the incidents of death at Fort A.P. Hill, according to Shields. The CID is responsible for the conduct of criminal investigations in which the army is, or may be, a party of interest, according to the CID Web site. “(The CID) is conducting the investigation because it happened on their property. We’re working with them; it’s ongoing,” explained Shields. “That is not saying there is any criminality involved, because there isn’t. That is just their investigative body.”

Shields said that the BSA is gathering information about the incidents at the Jamboree for a comprehensive after-action analysis. After-action reports from all the volunteers and staff members at the Jamboree were still being collected at deadline.

Linda Graf, a consultant with 25 years in nonprofits and 10 years in risk management, said she believes that the existence of risk is not the issue. The issue is how to manage the risk.

“The very nature of nonprofit organizations leads them to engaging in risk-producing activities every day. We engage in risk-producing activities that generate benefits,” said Graf. “So, there is absolutely no inconsistency or inappropriateness in (a nonprofit organization) taking risk. Nonprofits exist to serve their mission; they’re engaged in doing good,” she said.

Therefore, risk management for a nonprofit is essential, said Graf. “Look at what happened, what went wrong. Have we learned from this? Is this an anomaly? Maybe set up some protocols. Did we completely eliminate risk? No, but we can say with confidence that we have significantly reduced risk. We can say we’re going ahead even in the face of tragedy.”

Nonprofits continue despite obvious risks because “the value is that we get the benefits that we get: skill development, confidence, self-esteem, mental health,” continued Graf.

At the heart of the organization, the BSA aims to instill in their young members the values of leadership, trustworthiness, courage and kindness, among others. Risk is present at every turn in achieving these missions as the Scouts partake in leadership training activities where there is always a chance — however slim — of things going awry.

“First, risk is everywhere,” said Melanie Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Washington, D.C., of which BSA is a member. “And to achieve the mission, you need to take risks.”

As for BSA, risk is prevalent. “They’ve got all the elements of a risky situation,” said Herman. But, “they’ve existed for many years, and they have professional staff in the risk management field. They are very thoughtful and certainly have embraced the idea that risk management is important.”

Indeed, BSA has in place a risk management department, as well as a health and safety department, to oversee risk and combat it, according to BSA spokesperson Shields.

But no matter how many preventative or risk-reducing measures are taken, incidents happen. For example, on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 26, the day President Bush was scheduled to speak at the Jamboree, fate struck once more. The threat of severe thunderstorms caused Bush to postpone until the following day. The thousands of Scouts and visitors who gathered inside the arena at Fort A.P. Hill for the opening ceremonies had been subjected to lengthy security checks dictated by White House security rules. Some waited inside more than two hours. With no air conditioning, high humidity and temperatures in the high 90s, in large numbers of Scouts and visitors alike began collapsing.

More than 300 Scouts and adults fell victim to the conditions. Although most were treated on site, more than 30 were taken to Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, where they were treated for symptoms associated with heat exhaustion.

“The Boy Scouts during the day were told to drink water — drink lots of water — and go for a swim,” said Shields of the precautionary measures. “A majority of the victims were the visitors to the Jamboree, not the Scouts.”

Shields noted the presence of several 400-gallon, clearly marked, potable water tanks throughout the camp, the availability of water inside the arena, and the army fire trucks spraying water on the heated crowd. He also noted there was a public address system set up to remind Scouts and the public to stay hydrated.

But, said Shields, “We are always in the market for ways to improve our safety.”

Anytime there is a tragedy or serious injury or death, “an organization should take the time and look at the circumstances and try to prevent it from happening in the future,” said Herman. “There is a tendency to look and say, ‘We did everything right,’ and be reassuring to themselves.”

Although seemingly star-crossed, the Jamboree would push on. The President’s visit was again postponed, this time rescheduled for July 30. Meantime, nearly 3,000 miles to the west, tragedy struck again.

Scout Ryan Collins, 13, and scoutmaster Steve McCullagh, 29, were killed July 27 when a lightning bolt struck one of the two tarps St. Helena Troop 7001 had set up in a meadow in Sequoia National Park, just east of Fresno, Calif. Seven others were injured in the incident. They were treated and released from Kaweah Delta Hospital in Visalia, Calif.

Just three days later, with the Jamboree coming to a close, and President Bush finally able to attend the event, a blackhawk helicopter carrying adult photographers made an emergency landing at Fort A.P. Hill. No one was injured, but the incident made even more apparent the dense cloud hovering above the Jamboree.

And again, in what is being hailed as a “bizarre” accident, just three days later at a remote Utah Boy Scout camp in the Uinta Mountains, a bolt of lightning killed a 15-year-old Eagle Scout and injured three others as they slept.

Eagle Scout Paul Ostler died despite the attempts of Dr. Stephen Morris, a trauma surgeon, to revive him via Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). Morris, director of the University of Utah Hospital’s trauma unit and co-director of the hospital’s burn unit, along with another physician, Dr. Morris Matthews, an anesthesiologist at Cottonwood Hospital in East Murray, Utah, were on site as unit leaders at Utah’s Camp Steiner. Both physicians immediately aided Ostler and the three other youths injured by the bolt.

“Within seconds, (Dr. Morris and Dr. Matthews) were there. We are very fortunate they happened to be the unit leaders for that unit,” said Kay Godfrey, director of public relations for Scouting in the State of Utah.

At an elevation of 10,400 feet, Camp Steiner is the highest Boy Scout camp in the nation, and a magnet for lightning. Due to this, the Great Salt Lake Council, which oversees Camp Steiner, has in place training, guidelines, and equipment to ensure the highest possible level of safety for its youth and adult leaders, said Godfrey.

However, lamented Godfrey, “Mother Nature’s not been kind to Scouting.”

In what Godfrey describes as “a kind of bizarre, strange incident,” a lightning bolt struck a Pine tree in a nearby grove, traveled down about 10 feet and, in a rare move, bounced out of the tree and hit one of the barn nails holding the logs of the Adirondack cabin together. The bolt then traveled through the barn nail, eventually coming out on the other side to where one of the victims lay in his cot.

“The odds of it ever happening like that again are astronomical,” added Godfrey. “These young people and their adult leaders couldn’t have been — as far as our camp is concerned — in any more secure location than where they were.”

Still, as a proactive measure, the camp has recently hired engineers to install lightning rods on the tops of the Adirondacks. “We plan on grounding the buildings out so that if a lightning strike did bounce and hit the cabin, or it took a direct hit, that voltage would go into the ground as opposed to throughout the cabin,” said Godfrey.

Added Godfrey, “We put hundreds of thousands of boys into the mountains every year, and most years we go unseen, unnoticed. Then we have an incident where we have a lost boy or a lightning strike and, boy, the focus is right back on us. But people don’t realize what a tremendous safety record Scouting really does have. Not only here (in Utah), but across the nation.”

In a similarly freakish accident, a young Doylestown, Pa., girl was killed when a 36-foot red oak tree smashed through a tarp and onto a picnic table where she and three others were sitting at the Joseph A. Citta Scout Reservation in Ocean Township, N.J.

Kelly Ann Beahan, 8, along with three other girls ages 9, 10, and 16, had been taking a first-aid class, part of the Jersey Shore Council of Boy Scouts of America’s weeklong Learning of Life program, when the red oak fell. The three others escaped with minor injury.

According to Shields, BSA has a policy of inspecting the trees at all its campsites on a semi-annual basis. Of the red oak in question, Shields said it had no “observable weaknesses before it fell over.” However, upon further inspection, “there was some disease found inside the tree.”

In a report to BSA, Steve Chisholm Sr., president of the New Jersey Board of Certified Tree Experts, wrote: “It appears that the red oak tree failed due to trunk rot/wood decay, most likely caused by previous multi-stem decline, which led to the spread of the internal wood decay.” But, added Chisholm, “This tree failure was, I believe, not due to any negligence on the part of the Boy Scouts, but an unfortunate accident that was due to the decay that was not visibly evident.”

The strain of tragedies that plagued BSA this past summer and shined a spotlight on the youth program. But for BSA, this is an experience with only one outcome: education. “We look at each incident separately and study what we can learn from it,” said Shields. “We are always looking for ways to do things more safely. We have always done that and will continue to do so.” NPT