Fatal Bolt Illuminates Boy Scouts' Questionable Record

Associated Press Writer

The forecast was ugly the day Matthew Tresca died.

The National Weather Service had warned throughout the afternoon that severe weather was coming to the area in the Pocono Mountains where the 16-year-old and more than 300 other Boy Scouts were attending a one-week camp.

As lightning flashed in the distance, Scout leaders dismissed the boys from the dining hall right after supper and sent them to their tented campsites in the woods. Around 7 p.m., lightning struck a tent pole near the picnic table where Matthew sat under a tarp. He suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead within 90 minutes.

That was Aug. 2, 2002. Since then, his parents have pursued a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America and the Scout council that ran the Pennsylvania camp, alleging that proper training and planning would have kept the boys in the shelter of the dining hall longer, preventing Matthew's death. They're not alone in criticizing the Scouts on lightning safety. Several prominent experts share such concerns.

"If it's going to take the Boy Scouts getting hit in the pocket to protect anyone else's family, then that's what I guess it takes," said Mary Tresca, sitting with her husband in their suburban New Jersey home.

The Boy Scouts deny negligence. Scout leaders have blamed Matthew's death on a "rogue lightning bolt" coming from skies that appeared to be clearing. National Scout officials say they strive to provide sound safety information to local Scout councils and trust council staff to make good use of it.

Since 1995, however, Associated Press and newspaper archives show that seven Scouts and Scout leaders have been killed and about 50 injured in 15 lightning incidents at Scout camps or on expeditions. National Scout officials testifying in sworn depositions for the Tresca case said they were unaware of several of the incidents, including a Scout leader's death at a camp near Pittsburgh in 2001.

Half a dozen of the country's foremost lightning-safety experts and advocates said in interviews that the organization -- which sends about 1 million boys into the outdoors each summer -- should be doing more in terms of training and vigilance.

"I was an Eagle Scout. I love the Boy Scouts," said Air Force meteorologist William Roeder. "But on this one they're wrong."

Roeder, who has provided weather advice to the space program at Cape Canaveral, said he offered to help the Scouts update their lightning-safety policies but was rebuffed.

"They have their heads in the sand," said Dr. Mary Ann Cooper of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a leading expert on lightning injuries. "Just about everybody else has come around on lightning safety -- golfers, boaters, park managers. The Boy Scouts are the one holdout."

Experts say some lightning casualties are inevitable when an organization sends so many young people into the wilderness. But Ronald Holle, an Arizona lightning expert, thinks some of the deaths -- including Matthew's -- were preventable.

"This was not a 'rogue bolt of lightning,' " Holle wrote in a court brief submitted on behalf of the Trescas. "If only on the basis of hearing thunder and seeing the flashes during the day, trained people should have kept everyone in the dining hall."

The criticism falls into two main categories.

Experts say local Scout councils should be required to adopt detailed lightning-safety plans for their camps encompassing such matters as monitoring severe weather and planning where Scouts should seek shelter. They say that national Scout officials should ensure such plans are followed.

Experts also say lightning safety should be a mandatory and detailed component of Scout leaders' training. They want leaders taught the rule of waiting 30 minutes after a storm's last visible bolt before resuming outdoor activities. They also want to spread the word that only substantial buildings and metal-enclosed motor vehicles -- not tents -- provide safe shelter from lightning. Some experts suggest the Scouts could offer a merit badge in lightning safety, thus creating a larger corps of adult leaders versed in the topic.

The Boy Scouts, offered an opportunity to respond in detail to the criticisms and suggestions, issued a statement.

"Lightning-safety education is an important part of our comprehensive safety program. It is taught to Scouts and Scout leaders at every level, at our schools and in the field," the Boy Scouts of America said. "Of course, Scouting is always alert to ways to improve its safety regime. However, no other youth organization spends as much effort on lightning safety and education as the Boy Scouts of America."

More on the Scouts' thinking about lightning safety is laid out in depositions obtained over the last two years by the Trescas' lawyer.

"Our standard of care is to provide good information to the local councils and the local volunteers to make decisions," testified David Bates, the Scouts' director of camping. "We haven't told anybody that it was their responsibility to develop a lightning-safety plan."

Bates said his office would have no way of knowing if councils were negligent in addressing the matter.

The top Scout official, Chief Scout Executive Roy Lee Williams, was asked how many Scouts and leaders had been killed or hurt by lightning during his leadership. "I couldn't say if it was one or 100," he replied.

Michael and Mary Tresca, both 47, say they never heard from national Scout officials after their son's death and are disillusioned with an organization they once admired.

Matthew -- a Scout since kindergarten -- checked into the Resica Falls Scout reservation in late July 2002, along with other Scouts from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The camp was run by the Cradle of Liberty Council in Philadelphia.

On the evening of Aug. 2, about 350 campers and leaders were in the dining hall as rain fell and lightning flashed in the distance.

The camp's aquatics director, Marc Spera, testified that he heard reports of an approaching storm on his ham radio and suggested to leaders at the head table that the Scouts be kept longer in the hall.

Spera quoted the camp's program director, John Oros, as replying, "No, let it go. I don't want to cause panic."

Oros denied having such a conversation. He said leaders felt the storm had passed and it was safe to dismiss the Scouts. Oros also said he, like many Scout leaders, had attended the Scouts' National Camp School but had received no detailed instruction regarding lightning precautions.

Raymond Braun, the Cradle of Liberty director of camping, was at the head table with Oros and defended the dismissal decision. Asked if the campsite was safer than the dining hall, Braun replied, "I'm not sure it's knowable."

Braun also discussed a review conducted by camp officials after Matthew's death. It dealt solely with the emergency medical response, not with events before the lightning strike, and no one was reprimanded, he said.

"I didn't see this as a preventable-or-not incident as much as it being an act of God with a rogue lightning bolt," Braun testified.

Experts say some Scout councils do a good job with lightning safety, while others don't.

One that wins praise is the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Cherokee Area Council, which lost a Scout to lightning 20 years ago. It has a detailed lightning-safety plan plus storm-alert equipment at its Skymont camp, including a device that can detect lightning 300 miles away.

Bill Fisher, a troop leader, said the monitoring system cost $500. "I sit here wondering how many more boys are we going to lose before we make the change," he said. "It's just not that hard."

The Trescas' suit, which could go to trial later this year, seeks unspecified damages. Jurors would decide the amount if the Trescas prevail.

Meanwhile, a family in Upstate New York also is suing the Scouts after a lightning accident.

Last summer there were two fatal lightning incidents on Scout expeditions. One killed an Eagle Scout in Utah. In July, lightning killed a Scout leader and a teenage Scout as their troop scrambled for shelter during a storm in California's Sequoia National Park.

The National Weather Service says lightning has killed about 70 Americans annually in recent decades, but deaths have declined in the past few years. "We know a lot more about lightning than we used to," said Holle, the expert from Arizona.

"In that context, the Scouts seem not to be very advanced. They're almost resistant. I can't say why."



Lightning casualties

Some of the lightning accidents that killed or injured Boy Scouts and Scout leaders since 1995:

August 2005

Utah -- Boy Scout Paul Ostler killed, three Scouts injured at Scout shelter during hiking trip in Uinta Mountains, about 60 miles east of Salt Lake City.

July 2005

California -- Boy Scout Ryan Collins and Scout leader Stephen McCullagh killed, six other people injured during hiking trip in Sequoia National Park.

June 2004

Ohio -- Nine Scouts injured at their campsite in Boston Township in northern Ohio.

August 2002

Pennsylvania -- Boy Scout Matthew Tresca killed, six people injured at Resica Falls Scout camp in Monroe County.

June 2002

Wisconsin -- Two Scouts injured in their tent at a camp at Crystal Lake near Rhinelander.

July 2001

Virginia -- Two Scouts attending 2001 Scout National Jamboree injured at their campsite at Fort A.P. Hill near Bowling Green.

July 2001

Colorado -- One Scout injured by bolt near his tent during camp-out in Elbert County.

July 2001

New York -- Two Scouts, one adult leader injured at Scout camp rifle range in Phelps.

June 2001

Pennsylvania -- Scout leader John Magyar killed, two people injured at Twin Echo Camp, 35 miles east of Pittsburgh.

July 2000

Missouri -- Four Scouts injured at their tent in Taum Sauk Mountain State Park near Ironton.

August 1999

North Carolina -- Three adults, two youths injured at Woodfield Boy Scout camp near Asheboro.

July 1999

Wyoming -- One Scout injured while hiking on Table Mountain in Grand Teton National Park.

July 1997

Utah -- Scoutmaster Douglas McLachlan killed, two people injured while hiking with their troop toward King's Peak, about 80 miles east of Salt Lake City.

July 1997

Colorado -- Six Scouts injured at their camp in mountains west of Boulder.

July 1995

Minnesota -- Scout leader David Walters of Pelham, Ala., killed, another leader injured at Newfound Lake while on Scout canoe trip in northern Minnesota.

Sources: Associated Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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