A gentle rain was falling over their campsite as 13-year-old Alden Brock and seven other Boy Scouts climbed into their tents in the dark of night, capping off the second day of their long-awaited wilderness adventure at the Philmont Scout Ranch in northeastern New Mexico, a Disneyland of sorts in the Scouting community.
Some 1,300 miles from their homes outside Sacramento, Calif., the boys from Troop 380, as well as the four adults accompanying them on a 12-day trek through rugged mountainous terrain, settled into their sleeping bags at about 10 p.m.
Bursts of lightning and bangs of thunder occasionally stirred the campers from their sleep as the light drizzle intensified throughout the night of June 26. But no one was too concerned about the small streambed an estimated 13 feet below their campsite.
“We didn’t really acknowledge it as, like, a big problem,” Theodor Morrow, a 19-year-old college student and first-year camp ranger assigned to supervise the Scouts, later told investigators.
The decision proved deadly.
At about 4:30 a.m. — an hour after the National Weather Service had issued a storm alert for the region — a massive surge of cold water that sounded like a fast-moving train jolted the campers from their sleep, leading to a frantic effort to escape a ferocious flash flood that would claim Alden’s life and shake the core of one of the nation’s largest and most prominent youth organizations.
Police reports and audio interviews obtained by The New Mexican under a public records request paint a chaotic scene of boys and chaperones struggling in the dead of night — with no warning — to get out of their tents as the raging floodwaters swept their campsite away. According to witness accounts, their tents became makeshift cages, clinging to their bodies like Saran Wrap and forcing some of the campers to rip holes with their teeth in a desperate attempt to get out alive.
“You could hear people yelling, but you couldn’t understand what they were saying,” Michael Evans, one of the adults, later told police.
The aftermath stunned even veteran law enforcement officers.
“The actual little creek that runs down through there isn’t any more than a foot and a half, 2 feet wide, and the area of destruction had to be, I’m guessing, at least 50 yards wide, maybe wider,” Colfax County Sheriff Rick Sinclair said in an interview.
“They estimate that the wall of water that came down through there was anywhere between 8 and 12 feet. You could see the folded-over willows and the damage that the force of the water actually did on its way through. Crazy,” he said. “Crazy.”
New Mexico State Police investigated the incident. But their investigation didn’t draw any conclusions, including whether the ranch erred by allowing the troop to camp so close to a streambed that, according to the National Weather Service, had flooded before.
A rain gauge installed about 4.4 miles downstream has recorded at least five other significant flooding events in the past 100 years where the peak flow was at least 2,000 cubic feet per second, or 7 to 9 feet deep, most recently in July 2006. The highest peak flow recorded at the gauge — 5,200 cubic feet per second — was in August 1929.
Kerry Jones, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said it’s still unclear how big the flash flood was in June because the gauge broke.
“There was at least a four-foot rise in 90 minutes until we think the gauge was blown out or damaged. There was lot of debris, as you can imagine,” he said.
“There was anecdotal evidence and reports from folks that it could’ve been as high as 20 feet,” Jones added. “It was a tremendous amount of water.”
The state police investigation is now closed. In police interviews, investigators called the deadly flood a freak accident that couldn’t have been prevented.
“It was an unfortunate incident that occurred, and unfortunately that group of Boy Scouts got caught up in it,” state police spokesman Sgt. Chad Pierce said in an interview.
The police report states that a campsite farther upstream flooded regularly and “was closed for the safety of the scouts,” but it doesn’t indicate how far upstream or if a specific event prompted its closure.
The Philmont Scout Ranch declined to answer any questions and referred inquiries to the Boy Scouts of America, which also declined to answer any questions, including whether any alerts were issued that night, what emergency procedures were in place, whether the organization had investigated the incident and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent Alden’s death.
“The passing of Alden Brock earlier this summer was a tragic accident and our staff continues to mourn the loss of this exceptional young man,” the Philmont Scout Ranch said in a statement issued by the Boy Scouts of America.
The organization also declined a request by The New Mexican to tour the site.
“We’re not scheduling any on-site media availability at Philmont Scout Ranch at this time,” it said in an email.
Alden’s father, Roger Brock, declined a request for an interview.
“Not at this moment,” he said by telephone.
In the last 10 years, at least 46 Boy Scouts, adult leaders or guests have died during Boy Scout outings, including four this year, according to a search of news accounts and public records.
Joel C. Simon, a Houston lawyer who sued the Boy Scouts on behalf of the parents of a 10-year-old who was struck and killed by a golf cart during a recruiting event in Texas in 2012, said the family deserves to know what happened.
“I think the family … certainly is entitled to answers and whether those need to come from a lawsuit or elsewhere, I don’t know,” he said. “I feel horrible for the family.”
In his experience with the Boy Scouts of America, Simon said the organization “seemed to believe that the law didn’t apply to them.” The Boy Scouts, he said, need more oversight, “particularly when dealing with our nation’s most valuable resource: our children.”
“At the end of the day, every child who engages in Scouting should come home to their family,” he said.
The Boy Scouts of America, he added, “should know, especially on their property, where it is safe and where it is not safe for children to be located.”
In its statement, the Boy Scouts said the organization has more than 100 years of experience conducting outdoor activities.
“We place great importance on creating the safest environment possible for all of our participants,” according to the statement. “Additionally, we have worked with leading meteorologists in the space program to develop a hazardous weather module that teaches adult volunteer leaders how to respond to extreme weather conditions.”
After the incident, ranch comptroller Steve Nelson told The New Mexican that Philmont employees monitoring the weather reached out to crews by radio to make sure everyone was safe.
“We have people that are in our radio room 24 hours a day, and they were monitoring the weather on our weather system,” Nelson said in a June interview. “It’s difficult to tell when you’re sitting here what may be happening up there, but it looked like it was something we needed to be concerned about.”
But state police investigators said Scouts from Troop 380 told them they weren’t equipped with radios.
Exactly when the radio warning went out is unclear, but Nelson said after it was issued that “we found out that there were some that were in trouble.”
State police said Christopher Heden, a Philmont ranger, told them he “was notified to check on the camps in the area because of the weather” at about 3 a.m, though he wasn’t sure about the time. Another ranger, Isabelle Herde, told police she was notified to check on the camps at about 4:15 a.m. As she approached the camps, she had to stop because the flooding had washed out a footbridge that crossed the stream.
She told police she began yelling at the campers to get up but wasn’t sure if they could hear her through the rushing waters. She then said a “a wall of water came down the canyon washing everything away,” according to a police report.
The boys in Troop 380 hardly stood a chance.
“Be prepared” is the motto of the Boys Scouts of America, an organization that has had more than 110 million members since it was founded in 1910.
But nothing could prepare Alden and the other boys for the chain of events that awaited them at campsite No. 12 in the Indian Writings camp, one of the oldest at the Philmont Scout Ranch.
The 137,000-acre ranch south of Cimarron, described as the Boy Scouts of America’s largest national High Adventure Base, draws more than 22,000 campers each summer.
Alden, a curly-haired “adrenaline addict” who had set his mind on becoming an Eagle Scout, was among the scores of boys and young men who arrived at the ranch in the summer for an adventure that had been in the works at least 18 months. The ranch recommends that participants start a physical training program at least six months before arriving.
“Backpacking five to 14 miles daily, for 12 days with a 35-50 pound pack, at elevations ranging from 6,500 to almost 12,500 feet, requires great physical strength and endurance,” according to Philmont’s itinerary guidebook.
The ranch’s “guide to adventure” cautions participants of a long list of dangers on the mountain, including flash floods.
“Small streams can become raging rivers in a few minutes or even seconds. It is important to be alert to the possibility of flash floods and take steps to avoid a dangerous encounter. Pitch your tents on higher ground. During and after periods of heavy rain, stay away from natural drainage areas,” the guide warns.
Before setting out on their trip, Troop 380, from the Golden Empire Council in California, received a safety briefing that included what to do in the event of a flash flood.
Morrow, who was assigned to lead the Scouts on the first three days of their trip, told them about the warning signs. It will sound like a train, and the smell of fresh-cut grass will fill the air, he advised.
“He definitely mentioned that it’s a potential,” Evan Frenklak, 17, told an investigator, adding that the “main thing” that Morrow advised was to get to higher ground.
In a brief telephone conversation, Morrow said he would consider a request for an interview.
“It’s obviously, like, a touchy thing, so I’m going to think about it,” he said.
In an email the next day, Morrow declined a request for an interview, saying he would talk about the incident only if all survivors from Troop 380 agreed to do so, too.
“The members and I talked after the flood about keeping the experience more to ourselves, and I am unsure how they feel about this,” he wrote. “I want to respect their wishes as they knew Alden far more than I did.”
The morning of June 25, Alden and the rest of the troop left base camp. After a day of hiking, they camped overnight and set out June 26 for another day of hiking and activities, including a trail-building exercise.
After reaching the Indian Writings campsite, the boys showered and ate dinner.
“Everybody was in really good spirits,” Benjamin Heningburg, one of the adults accompanying his 14-year-old son on the trip, said in a police interview.
As the group prepared for bed, rain started to fall.
“It was raining, but it wasn’t anything bad,” Frenklak told police.
Witnesses gave conflicting accounts about how they chose the campsite. One of the adults, Michael Evans, told investigators the boys made the decision.
“We were happy to get it,” he said, adding that it was “pretty level” and had a “nice growth to it.”
Jonathan Traum, another adult on the trip, said the camp was about 30 to 40 feet away from the creekbed. Initial reports said the campsite was about 18 to 20 feet above the creek, which is typically about 2 to 3 feet wide and about a foot deep. But state police investigators estimated that the site was about 13 feet above the streambed, and that the wall of water had risen about 2 feet above the site.
Frenklak said he didn’t remember who chose the No. 12 campsite.
“But it was obviously a bad place to put it,” he told police. “We were looking more like how to avoid bears. We didn’t even think about flooding.”
Heningburg didn’t think much about the location, either.
“We sleep by creeks a lot,” he said.
Jones, the meteorologist, said there were “multiple waves” of rain that night.
“But there were two distinct waves of heavy rain-producing storms that moved through the area,” he said.
The first hit about 3:30 a.m., prompting the National Weather Service to issue a “special weather statement” highlighting the threat, he said. The next big wave hit about 30 minutes later.
“The storm motions were virtually parallel to the drainages,” he said, adding that the earlier storms had already saturated the ground.
George Elliot, an Alabama scoutmaster whose troop was at the Philmont base camp that night, told a television station the storms were “unbelievable.”
Heningburg, a self-described light sleeper, woke up to the sound of water at about 4:30 a.m. Initially, he thought “maybe that’s how it sounds,” as he had never camped there before.
But then he heard a cracking sound and told his tent mate, Evans, the father of another Boy Scout on the trip, “Let’s go check this out.”
By the time Heningburg got up, water had rushed into the tent and was starting to drag it away.
“The tent was moving, as big as I am,” Heningburg, who is 6-foot-3 and weighs nearly 250 pounds, told police.
Heningburg and Evans started screaming.
“Everybody out! Everybody out! Get out of your tents! Out! Out!”
Morrow, the ranger assigned to the troop, woke up to water in his tent.
“I went straight for the zipper of my tent and got right out,” he said.
Morrow tried to hold onto the other tents as they started to float away. As he yelled for everyone to stay calm and seek higher ground, Morrow ran to a tent and tried to find the zipper but couldn’t. In the distance, he saw another tent starting to float away and left the first one behind.
Morrow told investigators that Alden and his tent mate, Logan Reed, may have been in the first tent. But he was unsure.
Logan felt the rush of water hit his head. Immediately, he turned to Alden and woke him up, warning him of the impending danger.
“We started trying to get out of the tent,” Logan told investigators. “We couldn’t get to the zipper.”
As the two boys struggled to get out of their tents, Alden stayed relatively calm.
“Don’t panic,” Alden told Logan.
Alden, an active kid who played soccer and was the captain of his school’s wrestling team, tried to open the zipper, according to Logan.
“We floated down the stream, I guess, for a little bit,” Logan recalled. “I guess there was a hole in the bottom of the tent, and I slipped out of that.”
Before he slipped out, Logan told Alden about the hole in the tent.
“I said one last time, ‘Alden, there’s a hole in the tent!’ ” Logan said.
He said he went underwater “for a while.” When he resurfaced, he said, he “never saw the tent after that.”
Logan clung to a patch of reeds downstream until he was found at sunrise.
“I just sat there for the rest of the night,” he said.
The floodwaters also snagged two other boys, Christopher Nunes and Christian Heningburg.
Christian told police he was inside a waterproof sleeping bag and didn’t feel the water until Christopher woke him up.
“We were both screaming, ‘Help!’ while trying to find the zipper of the tent,” said Christian, adding that Morrow had tried to grab hold of their tent.
As he floated downstream, Christian said, he tried to stay above water. He said he managed to grab onto a pole, where he stayed for about 10 minutes, screaming for help.
“I had to do something because there was logs like piling up in front of me,” he said.
Christian said he grabbed the roots of a tree trunk, “but that broke,” and he drifted about 100 feet. He kept grabbing at weeds until he was able to plant his feet on the ground and pull himself out.
Another Boy Scout, Max Rybarczyk, 14, said he and his tent mate, Benjamin Keefer, also 14, were stuck in their tent when they, too, were unable to find the zipper. Max said he had to push his face against the tent to breathe.
Andrew Evans, then 15, scrambled out of his tent and could hear Max and Benjamin yelling for help, prompting him to hold onto their tent.
“My feet were getting numb at this point,” Andrew recalled. “I could barely feel anything, and my legs were like collecting debris all around them.”
Traum, one of the adults, ran to their aide.
“No one could find the zippers,” Max said, “so Jon Traum, he ripped open the tent with his teeth.”
Michael Evans, Andrew’s father, told police he didn’t think the campsite was dangerous when they chose it.
“I saw nothing wrong with it,” he said. “It looked fine to me, but it wasn’t.”
Morrow, who said he had been on a seven-day training trek to prepare to be a ranger and then took a test afterward to make sure he had learned all the skills, told police that Indian Writings was a designated campsite.
“That’s where you set up your tents,” he said.
“At the time, I thought it was a safe campsite,” he added toward the end of his police interview. “But, you know, with that severity of [the flash flood], there was really nowhere safe.”
Michael Evans choked up several times and cried during his police interview.
“They gave us their kid,” he said, referring to Alden’s parents, Roger and Cindy Brock. “I just wanted him to have a chance.”
When Alden was unaccounted for, Philmont dispatched a team to the scene at 5:20 a.m. The ranch didn’t notify state police until about 9:40 a.m. In June, Nelson, the ranch comptroller, said Philmont didn’t contact authorities sooner because the ranch “had plenty of resources that were on scene that were taking care of the search at that point.”
At about 11 a.m., about 6 1/2 hours after he was swept away, Alden was found a mile downstream in a tangle of brush. The state Office of the Medical Investigator said he drowned and classified the manner of death an accident.
Benjamin Heningburg said he kept searching the edges of the water for Alden.
“When I was out there searching and searching and searching, I was thinking in my mind, ‘Every freaking second that goes by is leading to the inevitable,’ ” he said.
At Alden’s memorial service, attended by some 800 people, the youngster was described as cheerful and a good kid with a joyful heart. His little brother, Russell, led the casket, wearing a Boy Scouts uniform.
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.