Scouts cope with death of leaders

BY LARRY O'DELL AND JEANNETTE J. LEE

The Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Va. – They were deeply devoted to the Boy Scouts, traveling thousands of miles to the woods of northern Virginia for 10 fun-filled days of fishing, archery and storytelling beside the campfire. One of their first tasks: Set up a large tent.

But the task went terribly awry when they lost control of a giant tent pole and it hit some nearby power lines, killing four Scout leaders as horrified youngsters looked on, said Bill Haines, a Scout executive in Alaska.

Karl Holfeld said his 15-year-old son Taylor, witnessed the accident and was on his cell phone to his mother back home in Alaska when the electrocutions occurred.

The boys “all started screaming,” Holfeld told the Anchorage Daily News. “He said, 'Oh my God, oh my God, the tent is on fire, they're being burned!”'

The Scouts spent Tuesday reviewing safety procedures and mourning the deaths of the four men, but said the event would begin Wednesday as planned, with an evening speech by President Bush. A memorial service will be held during the opening ceremony of the Jamboree, which draws more than 40,000 Scouting enthusiasts from around the world.

Scout adviser David Tracewell, 54, of Kansas City, said that the mood “became very somber” as word of the tragedy spread around Fort A.P. Hill – a sprawling Army base about an hour south of Washington.

“These scout leaders … get to know these kids very well,” he said. “I'm sure these kids are devastated. They're their mentors, their leaders that become like their second dads.”

The dead were identified as Michael J. Shibe, 49, Mike Lacroix, 42, and Ronald H. Bitzer, 58, all of Anchorage; and Scott Edward Powell, 57, of Perrysville, Ohio. Shibe had two sons at the Jamboree and Lacroix had one; the three children all returned home to Alaska.

Three other adults suffered minor injuries.

The event was closed to visitors Tuesday. Boy Scouts spokesman Gregg Shields gave few details about the accident and was unable to say how long the investigation might take. Army officials are assisting.

“Our hearts go out to the families of these dedicated Scout leaders who gave so much to their sons, their troops and their communities,” Shields told reporters, his voice choked with emotion.

Scout Kenny Suggs, 17, of Baltimore said he did not hear about the accident until Tuesday morning when the scoutmaster told the troop what happened.

“It was pretty frightening,” Suggs said.

The victims came from many different professions, but they had one thing in common: They were all avid Scout leaders.

This was Shibe's third national Jamboree and his four sons were all Boy Scouts, according to Meg Stapleton, who is assisting the family. The two oldest, Brent and Neal, are Eagle Scouts whom Shibe had taken to a previous Jamboree.

Powell retired to Ohio about 18 months ago after living for 30 years in Alaska, where he ran a Scout camp. He accepted an invitation to the Jamboree – the last slot for an adult – when he was back in Anchorage this month for the camp's 50th anniversary, said his sister, Anne Rentfrow.

Powell taught scores of boys how to rappel, how to safely use knives and axes and how to find their way through the thick Alaskan forests using a compass. He also had a penchant for storytelling that came in handy in the glow of the campfire.

“He was the quintessential 'Boy,”' said Wayne Starr, a district commissioner for the Boy Scouts in Alaska.

Bitzer is a retired attorney who worked in scouting for years and gave up his law practice to work with the organization, Starr said.

“Scouting was what he loved. He spent many, many, many hours working with Scouting,” said troop scoutmaster Ken Schoolcraft. “It was a way for him to help others.”

Shields said he knew of no Scouts other than the victims' sons leaving the Jamboree.

Anna Mazi of Fort Meade, Md., whose 12-year-old son, Brian, is attending his first Jamboree, said she had no fears for her child's safety.

“I trust the judgment of the leaders who are there with them,” she said. “I still have confidence in the Boy Scouts and the training they go through.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush would stick to the focus of his original speech on service and choices – while touching on the tragedy.

“These parents were there doing their part to help their children have a better understanding of service and leadership and making the right choices in life.”

But, McClellan added: “Those parents would want the Boy Scouts to continue forward in their important work.”

The Jamboree, held every four years since 1937, runs through Aug. 3. Scouts ages 12-18 are to spend 10 days camping in tents and doing activities that include archery, fishing and a GPS-based scavenger hunt.

There are about 400 electrocutions each year in the U.S., and about a quarter of them are related to power lines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Associated Press Writer Larry O'Dell contributed to this story from Bowling Green; Jeannette J. Lee contributed to this story from Anchorage.