BOWLING GREEN – Fast action by Boy Scout leaders apparently saved lives Monday when they stopped boys rushing to help the victims of an electrical mishap that killed four men.
“We were going over there to help, but Scout leaders stopped us – they literally pushed us back,” said Greg MacDonald, 14, of Hanover, Mass., who sprang to his feet with the rest of Troop 531 when he saw flames arc through the big dining tent being erected nearby by a troop from Alaska.
MacDonald’s troop leader, Tom Sawin, said a cry for water to quench the fire immediately rang from the area near the tent, and boys rushed with buckets and bottles in response.
But he and other nearby leaders also heard a pop when the tent’s ridge pole struck overhead utility lines. The leaders realized that anyone approaching the tent might be electrocuted.
“I think they wouldn’t have even had a chance to throw the water” because the area of charged ground was so great, Sawin said. He said he was told the wires carried more than 15,000 volts.
At once, Sawin said, he and other adult leaders raced from surrounding camps to block the khaki swarm of Scouts.
“I think we could have had 20 deaths,” he said of his troop of 35 teenagers. “It was not just me. It was all the adult leaders. They saved their own Scouts’ lives. We’re still amazed there weren’t countless other deaths.”
Details of the accident at the National Scout Jamboree on sprawling Fort A.P. Hill remain under an Army investigation. A Boy Scouts of America spokesman released the names of the victims Tuesday. They were Ronald H. Bitzer, 58; Mike Lacroix, 42; and Michael J. Shibe, 49, of Anchorage, Alaska; and Scott Edward Powell, 57, of Perrysville, Ohio, who was associated with the Alaskan troop.
The deaths were the first reported at a jamboree since 1997, when a Scout was killed in a Humvee accident at the fort.
The men apparently were raising a dining tent at their unit’s campsite Monday afternoon when the accident occurred. Fort A.P. Hill spokesman Ken Perrotte also credited the Rappahannock Electrical Cooperative, based in Bowling Green, for quickly shutting off power to the base after the accident.
Utility officials and a tent company crew returned to the scene yesterday where a large tent canopy and large metal poles remain. Nearby, white lines appeared to have been spray painted in a rectangular box beneath overhead power lines. A few wooden stakes were posted in the grass.
Asked who authorized the master site plan for the jamboree, Scout spokesman Gregg Shields said it was the responsibility of both the Army and the Boy Scouts. Neither Shields nor Perrotte were able to definitively say how detailed the master plan was and whether it included notice of where within a designated area certain tents should be pitched.
Shields said the Army is heading the investigation, and the office of Army Maj. Vince Mitchell said the military had no new information to release.
Shields was quoted by The Associated Press as saying the leaders ignored Scouting teachings by putting the tent under a power line. The Scout leaders also had taken the “somewhat unusual” step of hiring a contractor to help with the task, Shields said.
“Boy Scouts are taught not to put their tents under trees or under power lines. I don’t know what happened in that case,” Shields said.
The jamboree is divided into subcamps, each of which is responsible for putting up a mess tent for what could be the hundreds of Scouts in their division. Shields said he did not know if Scouting has a specific policy regarding the proximity of tents to power lines, and he could not identify the contractor hired by the Alaska troop, the AP reported.
Calls to the head of the tent company whose truck was parked at the scene of the accident, Tents & Events Inc. of Fishersville, have not been returned.
Three sons of two of the Scout leaders who were killed have returned to Alaska. Jay Laurence Call, 44, an adult Scoutmaster who was injured, returned to the jamboree on Tuesday evening after being treated at VCU Medical Center’s burn unit.
“He’s glad to be back. He’s glad to be with his sons. He wants to enjoy himself,” said Les Baron, a Scout executive with the Western Region, which includes the Alaska troops.
Uriah Thomas, 15, of Alaska Troop 712, said several other troop menbers decided to return home early.
“Most of us are doing pretty good,” Thomas said.
Contact Lawrence Latané III at (804) 333-3461 or [email protected]
Times-Dispatch staff writer Kiran Krishnamurthy contributed to this report.