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Jamboree litigation unknown





Suits still considered in 2005 accident that killed 4 Scout leaders



Monday, July 31, 2006


FREDERICKSBURG - Whether lawsuits will be filed over last summer's electrocution of four Boy Scout leaders in a tent accident at the National Scout Jamboree remains an open question.


"Claims are being considered. Whether litigation will be necessary, who knows," Kenneth Schoolcraft, an attorney for the family of Ronald H. Bitzer, said during a phone interview from Anchorage, Alaska, on Friday.


Schoolcraft said he expects any lawsuits would first be filed in Virginia in connection with the July 25, 2005, accident that resulted in the deaths of Bitzer and three other Alaska Scout leaders at Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County. Virginia has a two-year deadline by which a wrongful-death lawsuit must be filed.


Asked whether the Boy Scouts of America or the now-defunct tent-rental company would be the targets of litigation, Schoolcraft said: "It would be the tent company and then who knows who else."


Michael Harman, a Richmond attorney for Tents & Events of Fishersville, did not return phone calls seeking comment last week. His secretary said Friday that he was unavailable.


Gregg Shields, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, also did not return phone calls seeking comment about the Irving, Texas-based organization's safety reviews after the tent accident and the BSA's response to heat-related injuries.


Participants, observers and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were critical of the way the BSA prepared for and handled the heat that felled thousands of jamboree campers and visitors. Nearly 3,500 of the 43,000 participants fell sick from sweltering heat during the 10-day quadrennial event, according to the CDC, including about 500 people on July 27, when the heat index rose to 121 degrees.


Shields has previously said the Scouts will review safety procedures as they prepare for the next jamboree, which is being delayed until 2010 to coincide with the Boy Scouts of America's centennial anniversary. The jamboree has been held at Fort A.P. Hill since 1981, though its future at the Army base is the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging religious discrimination by the group and its use of federal property.


In the tent deaths, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Tents & Events for two "serious" workplace-safety violations; the company paid $3,000 in fines. OSHA officials also said they would have cited the Boy Scouts of America for a violation if any of the Alaska Scout leaders had been employed by the organization. OSHA said it found "significant issues regarding safety concerns" with the organization.


A separate Army investigation found no criminal wrongdoing.


The tent accident, on the first day of the jamboree, claimed the lives of Bitzer, 58; Mike Lacroix, 42; and Michael J. Shibe, 49, all of Anchorage; along with Scott Edward Powell, 57, who had moved from Anchorage to Ohio in 2004 but was helping lead the Alaska jamboree troops. Shibe's twin sons and Lacroix's son, all 14, each witnessed the death of his father.


Witnesses say the leaders were electrocuted when the center pole of a large canopy they were helping a contractor erect touched overhead power lines. Campsites for the two Western Alaska troops were marked with stakes and yellow nylon roping on the ground, according to OSHA's report. One of the campsites was on a downward slope.


A tent-company employee told OSHA officials that a Western Alaska leader was, in the report's words, "extremely specific" that the large tents be placed 20 feet inside from the yellow rope, putting both canopies beneath power lines.


BSA decides the locations of the individual campsites in advance, according to the OSHA report. BSA officials say the organization provides individual troop leaders with a diagram suggesting how tents can be placed but that individual troop leaders decide where to put tents within their campsites.


At least one tent-company employee told investigators the troop leaders insisted on helping erect the second of two tents. That statement conflicted with a previous account from Western Alaska Council director Bill Haines, who previously said the two tent-company employees asked the Alaskan leaders for help raising the second canopy.


Schoolcraft said OSHA redacted portions of the copy of the report he requested; the agency also blacked out parts of the report that The Times-Dispatch received after the newspaper filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request.


Schoolcraft said he is still trying to obtain more information. "It's a process," he said.


He said Bitzer's family is grateful for the outpouring of support from the community and from people they had never met.


"It was a tough event, and it continues to be difficult," he said. "It's a long grieving process."



Contact staff writer Kiran Krishnamurthy at kkrishnamurthy@timesdispatch.com or (540) 371-4792.

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I remember that day well. It was a hot day and we arrived at our "plot" (Central Region, far away from the Alaska contingents) in the noon day sun with no shade in sight. We had already decided our layout of tents (no power lines, trees or any thing else in our expanse). We had 21 tents (18 for the 36 Scouts, one for me, one for the QM and one for the other two Scoutmasters), and five small dining flys (shade for about one picnic table per fly). Well, we were about 80% finished when a bunch of jamboree staff came into the site vehemently stating nothing over six feet tall could be erected. No explanation given. My guess, it was an arbitrary decision with the thought that anything bigger would take to much effort in this heat and humidity. Well, our dining flys were probably right around six feet at the edges and maybe seven feet tall in the middle. Were they asking us to not use them and stay out in the field with no shade? How ludicrous I thought.


Well after the rumor mill and a few facts came pouring in during the next 24 hours or so it became obvious why they didn't want "tall" objects being erected. But still, I wonder why such blanket rules.


On a side note, I think the BSA was much more negligent about the way they handled the jamboree big events (opening and closing). The military told them before Sunday (the day the jamboree was opened to non-staff) that their plans were a disaster in the waiting. The BSA did not budge on their logistic plans for the opening and closing ceremony. I talked with MPs who shared this information with me before the canceled opening event disaster occurred. I am not impressed that the BSA put publicity of the event above the boys health and safety. Live and learn and it will be interesting to see how 2010 goes.

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I am in the SE Virginia area. This week, it's 97-101 degrees during the day, with 60-70% humidity. "Black flag" conditions on the military bases (no unnecessary physical activity). It happens like this every year, so it's not like it was a surprise.

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I think it's time people stop blaming the BSA for all of the health issues. You gripe when they don't let somebody do an activity for health reasons, so when they let those people do it, guess what? It's the BSA's fault when people who shouldn't be in the heat are. I understand it was hot that day. I made the trip from Subcamp 4 after, on that day, having already walked from Action Center A back to Action Center D to the Subcamp 3 where I was working.


There were a lot of Scouts and Scouters, and parents, etc there should not have been. Also those people didn't come PREPARED. I blame adult leadership, youth leadership, and the individual Scouts quite a bit too for the heat issues that arose that day.


Oh, and in case you didn't realize; it's 90+ degrees in 90% of the country right now!! Work is still getting done!



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