Boy Scouts who survived the deadly tornado that killed four and injured 48 described the experience as living through hell, as government officials Thursday hailed the boys as heroes.
"I've been to hell and back," a dirtied Alex Robertson told FOX affiliate KPTM-TV as he described fleeing the tornado that touched down at the Little Sioux Scout Camp in western Iowa Wednesday evening.
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Alex was among the Scouts who immediately began to help the injured.
"They're real heroes, these young men," Iowa Gov. Chet Culver said Thursday. "These camp directors and these youth counselors and others ... literally saved lives during this time period when emergency management couldn't get to them."
Lloyd Roitstein, an executive with the Mid America Council of the Boy Scouts of America, reminded reporters Thursday that the Boy Scouts motto is "Be Prepared."
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"The day before the tornado hit, they [the Scouts] had emergency training, they knew what to do, they knew where to go and they performed well," Roitstein said. "We had excellent leadership out there."
Iowa rescue workers cut through downed branches and dug through debris amid rain and lightning Wednesday night to reach the camp where the 93 boys, ages 13 to 18, and 25 staff members were attending a weeklong leadership training camp.
On Thursday officials identified the dead Scouts as Aaron Eilerts, 14, of Eagle Grove, Iowa; Josh Fennen, 13, of Omaha, Neb.; Sam Thomsen, 13, of Omaha, Neb.; Ben Petrzilka, 14, of Omaha, Neb.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff toured the flattened campsite Thursday, telling reporters it looked as though a bowling ball had struck trees down like bowling pins.
"This has been a remarkable onslaught of weather, everything from flooding, unbelievable rain and of course tornados all descending at once," Chertoff said. "And I think everybody had to be particularly touched by the 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."
At least 42 of the injured remained hospitalized Thursday morning, with everything from cuts and bruises to major head trauma, said Gene Meyer, Iowa's public safety commissioner. At least four of the injured were airlifted from the camp, he said, refusing to elaborate on their conditions or identify the dead.
Roitstein said a tornado siren went off at the camp, but the Scouts already had taken cover before the siren sounded. The tornado hit at about 6:35 p.m. Wednesday.
Alex told KPTM-TV that he ran to a shelter in the nick of time, telling reporters he recorded what he thought would be his last words in his camera as he ran. "If anybody found this, [I said] 'I was Alex Robertson, troop guide for the Red Hawks,' and that was it. I didn’t have time for much else."
He credited his dive into the shelter door as saving his life.
"The door kicked in, the roof picked up, the walls started going and I was dragged off to the far wall before it got kicked away," he said. "The chimney fell and then the tornado passed about two minutes after that."
The boys had been in two groups when the storm hit the ranch in the remote Loess Hills. One group managed to take shelter, while the other was out hiking.
All the Scouts and staff were accounted for, Meyer said, adding that searchers were making another pass through the grounds to make sure no one else was injured. The camp was destroyed.
Scout supervisor Thomas White said he dug through the wreckage of a collapsed fireplace to reach victims in a building where many Scouts had been seeking shelter when the twister struck.
"A bunch of us got together and started undoing the rubble from the fireplace and stuff and waiting for the first responders," White told KMTV-TV in Omaha. "They were under the tables and stuff and on their knees, but they had no chance."
His father, Joel White, jumped in his truck at home in Blair, Neb., to find his son. "We're just hoping and praying it wasn't him," he told FOX News. "We didn't want it to be anybody. We just didn't know."
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The nearest tornado siren, in nearby Blencoe, sounded only briefly after the storm cut power to the town, said Russ Lawrenson of the Mondamin Fire Department.
Taylor Willoughby, 13, said several Scouts had been getting ready to watch a movie when someone screamed that there was a tornado. Everyone hunkered down, he said, and windows shattered.
"It sounded like a jet that was flying by really close," Taylor told NBC's "Today" on Thursday. "I was hoping that we all made it out OK. I was afraid for my life."
Ethan Hession, also 13, said he crawled under a table with his friend.
"I just remember looking over at my friend, and all of a sudden he just says to me, 'Dear God, save us,"' he told "Today." "Then I just closed my eyes and all of a sudden it's [the tornado] gone."
Ethan said the Scouts' first-aid training immediately compelled them to act.
"We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we need to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits; we had everything," he said.
Ethan said one staff member took off his shirt and put it on someone who was bleeding to apply pressure and gauze. Other Scouts started digging people out of the rubble, he said.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman told FOX News that the young Scouts quick action was heroic.
"As soon as it hit and it was out of the area, the Scouts were immediately checking their fellow Scouts, their pulse, to see if they were still alive, what they could do to assist," he told FOX News. "So they make us all proud."
The injured were taken to Burgess Health Center in Onawa, Alegent Health Clinic in Missouri Valley and Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha.
Burgess spokeswoman Beth Frangedakis said 19 victims arrived at the hospital around 8:30 p.m. They included children ages 2 months to 15 years, plus three adults.
Frangedakis said four were admitted to the hospital, one was taken by helicopter to Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa, and the others were released. She wouldn't release the nature of the victims' injuries.
David Hunt, chairman of the Mid-America Boy Scout Council's Goldenrod District, which covers several eastern Nebraska counties, said he believed the boys were from eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.
The 1,800-acre ranch about 40 miles north of Omaha includes hiking trails through narrow valleys and over steep hills, a 15-acre lake and a rifle range.
The tornado touched down as Iowa's eastern half grappled with flooding in several cities. The storm threatened to stretch Iowa's emergency response teams even further.
Iowa Homeland Security spokeswoman Julie Tack said officials were confident the state's emergency response teams could handle the crisis because western Iowa had been largely unaffected by the recent flooding.
FOX News' Kris Gutierrez, FOXNews.com's Sara Bonisteel and the Associated Press contributed to this report.