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Out on a scavenger hunt, youth group barely escapes tornado

March 5, 1997

ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (AP) _ Out on a scavenger hunt, a church group of boys and girls had to bring back a picture of themselves standing under a bank clock at precisely 2:22 p.m.

Lucky for them.

If it had been a few minutes later, they would have been in the middle of 260 mph winds and a tornado that damaged 25 percent of their city and left six people dead.

It was ``Disciple Now″ weekend at the First Baptist Church, a weekend of Bible study and games. The scavenger hunt began about 1:15 p.m. Saturday. Some 75 kids and young adults headed out in groups.

Their mission _ to return to the church with several odd items, including the clock picture and other snapshots: themselves on a playground slide, someone in a fireman’s suit, someone in the back of a police car, a messy room, and road kill.

Not too long into the game, the tornado sirens went off. Twelve-year-old Cara Hitt and her group were getting their picture taken under a bank clock.

``It scared us,″ she said.

But the city often tests the sirens, and they thought the noise might be a fire truck so the group continued on.

The rains got heavier, though, and it became obvious the sirens weren’t from a fire truck. Someone told them the city was under a tornado warning.

``We were all flipping out by that point,″ said 12-year-old Nikki Cosh, her eyes wide.

The girls headed back to the church, making it there just in time.

The tornado hit the city at 2:46 p.m.

Huddled in the church basement with only candles for light and no way to contact their parents because phones and power were down, they prayed and sang.

About that time, Katie Kolb, the mayor’s 15-year-old daughter, who had left her group with a friend to get her sister while her parents were out of town, was returning to the church. The rain and winds were bearing down.

``It was a white sheet,″ she said. ``You could not see a thing. You could not see the color of a stop light.″

Youth minister Terre Jasper stayed with the kids in the church basement. But they worried because two of the seven groups had not returned.

Philip Thompson, 12, was in one of the missing groups. Philip said it was a good thing they didn’t try to get back to the church.

When the sirens sounded, his group was looking for some road kill. They found a dead armadillo and got the picture.

But within minutes, it became apparent a tornado was headed their way. ``This was like you-couldn’t-see-anything rain,″ Philip explained.

They went to a friend’s house, the closest, safest place they knew to go. Crouched in a damp, muddy cellar, they waited out the tornado.

The other missing group had also made it to safety at a friend’s house.

Jasper realizes all too well what could have happened. Thinking about their close call, she gasps and puts a hand on her face. ``That gives me the chills.″

A total of 25 people were killed by Saturday’s twisters in Arkansas.

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