DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - A tornado roared through a Boy Scout camp in Iowa and flattened a cabin where many campers had sought shelter, killing four teen-aged boys and injuring dozens of others.
Close to 100 Boy Scouts scrambled for safety in shelters at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch when the tornado hit on Wednesday evening, one of dozens of twisters that ripped across the U.S. Midwest into the night.
“We had no warning really at all,” scout leader Thomas White said on Thursday morning. He said scouts were watching the clouds and the lightning storm when they saw a funnel form in the sky and began to run.
One cabin where scouts sought shelter was in the path of the tornado, and White said in television interviews that was where the boys died.
“It hit and all the doors flew open and it popped my ears,” Rob Logsdon, 15, said. “The walls and the porch and the roof just disappeared. I got hit by a table in the back.”
The boys killed at the camp were identified as two 13-year-olds and one 14-year-old from nearby Omaha, Nebraska, along with a 13-year-old from Eagle Grove, Iowa.
“Everybody had to be particularly touched by thought of the finest young people from this region being caught up in a tornado which struck them like a bowling ball and against which they had no chance,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a news conference in Blencoe, Iowa, near the scout camp.
This has been a particularly deadly year for tornadoes, with 118 deaths attributed to twisters — including 16 in Iowa — the most in a decade.
At least two tornado warnings were issued for western Iowa before the twister struck on Wednesday evening.
Camper Hal Emas, 14, said 40 boys huddled in one shelter when a siren blared and the scout leader shouted “under the table!” “Two seconds later, the walls blew out. It lasted for about 10 seconds,” he told the Des Moines Register.
Television images showed felled trees and debris strewn across the devastated campsite.
Boy Scout leader Lloyd Roitstein said the shelters were not built to withstand tornado-force winds. He said the campers knew foul weather was on the way and tried to prepare.
Officials said 94 campers and 24 adults were at the camp for a weeklong training event. Forty-eight people were injured, including many who remained hospitalized.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who toured the site, described the scene as one of utter devastation. “In some ways it is amazing we didn’t lose more lives than we did,” he said.
Rescue efforts at the 1,800 acre (728-hectare) camp, nestled in wooded hills in western Iowa, were hampered by downed trees, lightning strikes and heavy rain. Many of the Boy Scouts, who had emergency training only a day before, quickly began helping one another.
“There were some real heroes,” Iowa Gov. Chet Culver said.
Accidents have befallen boy scout troops over the years, including two deadly lightning strikes in the summer of 2005, the same year four scout leaders were killed in Virginia in front of horrified boys when a tent pole touched a power line.
More than 50 tornadoes were reported on Wednesday across Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, some accompanied by baseball-sized hail. The storms compounded the damage from rampant flooding that has forced thousands of people from their homes in the Midwest.
In Kansas, twisters killed two people and injured dozens, with 60 houses destroyed, said state emergency management operations spokeswoman Sharon Watson.
One ripped through Kansas State University’s campus, with damage expected to exceed $20 million, a school official said. (Additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago; Editing by Doina Chiacu )