8 from La. Boy Scout troop missing in Ark. forest

May 2, 2011 7:25:05 PM PDT
Authorities searched an Arkansas wilderness are Monday for a group Louisiana Boy Scouts believed to be stranded behind rain-swollen waterways.

No one has heard from the six Scouts and two troop leaders since Thursday, when they arrived at the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a remote area with little cellphone coverage. State police dispatched a helicopter to help locate the boys, but strong winds and low clouds forced the chopper to turn back before it reached the forest. Search crews planned to patrol nearby roadways overnight late Monday and early Tuesday, but no one was to go into the woods on foot in the dark.

Last June, flash flooding along the Little Missouri River valley floor killed 20 people in the same recreation area. The Scouts were experienced backpackers for their age - 14 on average and equipped with survival skills - and it was believed they camped along the 26.8-mile Eagle Rock Loop above the flood plain.

Art Hawkins, the executive director of the Scouts' Evangeline Area Council in Lafayette, La., said authorities believe the Scouts were cut off by rising water on the Little Missouri River, whose level tripled over the weekend, or one of its many tributaries.

The Scouts and their two leaders, from Troop 162 in Lafayette, had planned to leave the recreation area between breakfast and lunch on Sunday and arrive in Louisiana that evening. When no one heard from them by late Sunday, Boy Scout officials contacted local authorities, Hawkins said.

One park official, who spoke with the Scouts on Thursday, remembered seeing the boys' vans, and spotted the vehicles outside the Winding Staircase entrance to the Eagle Rock trail late Sunday night, Hawkins said.

"It was still pouring down rain (and) pitch black last night, so there was really no way to start a search-and-rescue effort," he said.

Instead, search teams headed toward the forest after daybreak Monday, but bouts of heavy rain have their efforts. Authorities had not located the boys - or even made contact with them - by nightfall Monday. Meanwhile, the children's parents traveled from Lafayette to Langley to wait for word.

"We're still in a holding pattern waiting for the rain to pass," Hawkins said.

Authorities hoped to try again Tuesday with the helicopter, which had to land some 50 miles away from the forest in Hot Springs because of the weather. Searchers on the ground planned to scale back their efforts overnight, save for vehicles patrolling nearby roadways with the hope someone will come across the campers.

"The bird right now is our best option in locating them," Montgomery County Sheriff David White said.

The boys had previously hiked in the recreation area. Knowing that cellphone service is shaky at best, the group left behind detailed plans, Hawkins said.

"They're going to be well-equipped to handle the weather and handle another night in the woods," Hawkins said.

Though the boys were familiar with the campground, Hawkins said there were concerns over how much food they had left.

"This is a group that is going to be able to fend and use the survival skills they learned through scouting," he said. "They're probably going to be hungry, but I'm sure they're going to be able to scrounge up enough food to be OK."

The Little Missouri River at the Albert Pike campground was at 3 feet to 4 feet when the Scouts arrived, but jumped to 8 feet Sunday morning after more than 7.5 inches of rain fell Saturday and Sunday. It topped out at 11 feet early Monday, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey. It fell steadily Monday, but was still at 6 feet two hours before sunset.

More than a dozen of the stranded boys' relatives drove from Louisiana to Arkansas and stationed themselves outside a Langley camping store, near the recreation area, waiting for the latest news. They planned to stay the night at a local church, said pastor Graig Cowart. Volunteers set up cots at Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church and brought in food and water for the families.

"They don't know anything. They haven't heard from nobody. They're devastated," said Cowart, who counseled families at his church after last summer's deadly floods.


Associated Press writers Andrew DeMillo and Jeannie Nuss contributed from Little Rock.