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Sunday, July 31, 2005
Boy Scout Leaders Recall Lightning Storm
By LISA LEFF, Associated Press Writer

St. HELENA, Calif. -- Boy Scout troop leader Stuart Smith was listening to the rain and the sound of laughter from boys who had just eaten pea-sized pieces of hail. The next instant he was flat on his back, returning to consciousness with the dim knowledge that they had all been hit by lightning.

Smith on Saturday recalled the sudden summer storm and the lightning that killed St. Helena assistant scoutmaster Steven McCullagh, 29, and 13-year-old scout Ryan Collins on Thursday.

Six others beneath a tarp in a meadow near the foot of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park had also been knocked flat "like kingpins," Smith told The Associated Press.

Smith, who was on the trip with his 15-year-old son Tim, said he surveyed the damage after the bolt hit, waiting for the feeling to return to his legs.

Part of the tarp was flapping in the wind. None of the others was moving. McCullagh, Ryan and assistant scout leaders Derek Dwyer and Chris Phelps appeared to be unconscious.

Phelps, who had signed up for the nine-day, 70-mile hike with his 14-year-old son David, was bleeding from his mouth and moaning.

"I saw that I could either go into the abyss, this moonlight thing, and let go, or choose to fight," he recalled.

Then, Smith said, the scene quickly transformed into chaos.

The rest of the scouts from the 12-member group came running to help and Smith shouted orders. "I started telling everyone, 'Go back to your training. You know what to do," he said.

Smith worked on Dwyer, then moved on to McCullagh, to whom he administered CPR for nearly two hours. He and the others shouted at their unconscious companions, "Fight back, fight back."

Two other boys under the tarp who had quickly revived administered CPR to Ryan. He had a pulse but never breathed on his own as they waited for help.

"We were hoping against hope that he would make it," Smith said.

Two scouts sprinted uphill for 25 minutes to reach a ranger station, which dispatched five helicopters to evacuate the group.

McCullagh died instantly when the bolt struck, the Tulare County coroner's office said. Ryan died Friday night at the University Medical Center in Fresno.

The storm struck on the seventh day of what was billed on the St. Helena scouts Web site as an "awesome hike" along the spine of the Sierra Nevada, culminating in a midnight climb up Mt. Whitney to view the sunrise.

The tragedy came just days after four men were electrocuted while putting up a tent at the National Scout Jamboree in Virginia. Two days later at the event, dozens of Scouts were sickened by stifling heat.

Smith said the storm that changed so many lives lasted all of 10 minutes.

"When I talked to the ranger, I said, 'What could we have done?' He said, 'You did everything right, it just turned out you were in the wrong place.'"