LANGLEY, Ark. – Six Louisiana Boy Scouts stranded by high water in an Arkansas forest said after being reunited with their families Tuesday that they never feared camping in an area where 20 people died in a flash flood last summer.
"I was worried that my parents would freak out," said Ian Fuselier, 13.
A National Guard helicopter plucked the boys and two Scoutmasters from the Albert Pike Recreation Area at daybreak Tuesday after the boys' parents spent 36 hours awaiting their rescue.
Allen Miller, the father of 13-year-old Stephen Miller, was confident of a happy ending.
"I wasn't worried, not with that group," Miller said.
According to one parent, the boys had considered a camping trip to Mississippi, but selected Arkansas as an alternative because of last week's tornadoes in the South. Arkansas weather was gloomy when they arrived last Thursday, and the heavy rain that started Saturday quickly swelled creeks and streams.
"They're always prepared for that," said Jonah Fuselier, Ian's father, of the weather.
Scoutmaster Jeff Robinson said there were two planned river crossings on their hike. The first wasn't a problem as the Little Missouri River was only knee-high. The second crossing was deeper than usual, up to the chest, and as much as 70 feet wide.
"I realized the water was too strong to cross the river with the boys," said Robinson, who waded into the stream to test its strength.
The leader said preparing for the unexpected is part of camping and that their only trouble was starting a fire in the rain. They packed in enough food and water that they could have stayed for another three or four days, he said. The boys ate jambalaya, eggs and grits while awaiting their rescue.
The Scouts camped above the flood plain where 20 people died in an overnight flash flood last June 11. Robinson said he was aware of the deaths but wasn't concerned about them.
"We're not going to let nature frighten us away," Robinson said.
The National Guard helicopter crew initially spotted the boys' campfire overnight Monday and tossed down ponchos, food, water and blankets — plus a radio that couldn't pick up a signal.
"Our pilots had to wait on sunlight to be able to get in and land. We just got in and pulled them out," Maj. Chris Heathscott said in an email to The Associated Press.
About 6:30 a.m., the pilot landed in a clearing about 300 yards from the campsite and ferried the eight out in two trips, delivering them to a camp supply store where parents and relatives applauded their arrival.
"The most exciting thing for them, other than just getting out of the field, is being able to fly away in a helicopter," Heathscott said. "I mean, I saw nothing but pointing and looking down. I'm sure it's a great experience for them to be able to get out of there. I'm sure this is a day they'll never forget."
No one needed medical attention, although one Scout had a cut on a leg, Heathscott said. All the Scouts wore red hooded sweatshirts.
Art Hawkins, executive director of the Evangeline Area Council of the Boy Scouts in Lafayette, La., said the boys from Troop 162 offered a "textbook" example of what to do when camping, including leaving a detailed plan with a Scout leader who didn't make the trip.
"I wish I could videotape the whole thing," Hawkins said. "This was the lesson of all the things you could do right. There was nothing that could have been done differently to change the outcome."
Montgomery County Sheriff David White agreed.
"As long as they stayed on high ground, we figured they were going to be in good shape," White said.
The parents waited Monday night at a local church in a scene eerily similar to one nearly a year before. Families, miles away from home, waited with pastor Graig Cowart for news on whether their loved ones had survived the rising water. There was no information until the National Guard spotted the boys, leaving some parents anxious, Cowart said.
"These people are really hurting," he said during the wait at his Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church. "They felt really alone and isolated."
Cowart led the families in prayer, calling out the names of the stranded boys and asking for their safety. Relatives joined hands. Some cried. Some held each other. Cowart recited the last verse of the 27th Psalm, which says: "Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord."
Until Tuesday morning, no one had heard from the Scouts since Thursday, when they arrived in Arkansas' Ouachita Mountains. The search began Monday morning after the group didn't show up back in Louisiana as expected.
The Scouts were experienced backpackers for their age — 14 on average — and had previously camped in the recreation area. A park official found the group's van outside the Winding Staircase entrance to the Eagle Rock trail late Sunday night, Hawkins said. It was already dark and pouring rain, so search teams waited until early Monday to start the search.
Foul weather hindered the search Monday, but skies cleared overnight and the National Guard was able to put a helicopter up.
Creeks and streams rose quickly Saturday and Sunday after nearly 8 inches of rain fell. The Little Missouri stood at less than 4 feet at the Albert Pike campground when the Scouts arrived, but had reached 8 feet by Sunday morning and 11 feet early Monday, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey. It was still running high Tuesday morning, prompting the rescue by air.
Associated Press writers Andrew DeMillo and Jeannie Nuss contributed from Little Rock.