In this story from January 1981, a television newsman recounts his harrowing escape from the devastation caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens
A strong foreboding suddenly awakened me during the night, The impression given me was unmistakable: The mountain will erupt today.
I peered at the clock; its luminescent face showed 3:00 a.m. Even so, I crawled out of bed, donned my climbing clothes, grabbed my camera gear and slipped out into the cool darkness to my TV news car. It was Sunday morning, May 18, 1980.
Like a sixth sense, strong and urgent, such prophetic nudges have come to me before during my 28 years. They have always turned out to be true; that’s why I felt there was no time to waste. I’m a photographer for KOMO-TV News in Seattle. And my home on Puget Sound is 150 miles from Mount St. Helens. I wanted to be there when it happened.
Ever since this mountain had begun quaking and snorting steam two months before, geologists, seismologists and news-media crews had clustered on the mountain to study and report on it. No one knew, of course, exactly what would happen. Or when.
But when black, ash-laden steam began spewing from a newly formed crater atop the 9677-foot peak, a large area around the mountain was barricaded even to property owners inside that circle. The circle was enlarged when a second crater blew open alongside the first. And even more alarm was expressed when the two craters melded into a single seething caldron a half mile wide.
Many lamented the black ash on Mount St. Helens’ snowy crown. She had once resembled Japan’s Mount Fuji in symmetry and beauty. Now her top was smudged and she didn’t look much like “The Lady,” as local residents called her.
But as the mountain continued to mutter, spasmodically belching steam and ash but otherwise remaining stable, apprehension turned into curiosity. People began to enjoy the novelty, and a carnival spirit grew. Volcano jokes and T-shirts imprinted “I survived the Mount St. Helens Eruption” blossomed.
For me, the volcano was a welcome change from the usual disaster stories I chased, such as shoot-outs, riots, exploding tank cars and burning buildings.
Part of my coverage of the possible eruption meant reporting on the seismologists’ warnings of mud slides, ash fallout and almost-odorless toxic gases that would result. One of the gases mentioned was carbon dioxide. Heavier than air, it could, they warned, settle into lungs, forcing out oxygen and causing suffocation.
Once, as we newsmen stood on the mountain’s north slope, a volcanologist said: “If she erupted right now, we’d all be dead within seconds.” He pointed to an area on the side of the mountain where sophisticated tiltmeters indicated it was bulging like a weak spot on an inner tube. If it did explode, he warned, there could be mud slides formed by earth, rock and melted snow. I envisioned lazy, cold mud slogging along.
Even so, few people expected the mountain to erupt. For the past several days she’d been so quiet we newsmen had had little to report.
But what would happen today? I wondered, as I raced down Interstate 5. I swung off the freeway onto picturesque 504, the Mount St. Helens highway that parallels the winding Toutle River. The area was familiar to me since I’d been covering the story for some time. I had also backpacked through it, as mountain climbing is one of my hobbies.
I decided the South Fork of the Toutie would provide the best view of the summit. So I turned onto a smaller road and slowed about a mile from the peak in a peaceful valley, a bit below and slightly to the west of the ominous bulge that had been pointed out by the volcanologist.
It was also inside the red danger zone that the U.S. Forestry personnel had evacuated. But at that time of the morning no one saw or stopped me. Besides, as a newsman, I felt responsible to record what I expected to happen.
I was searching for the ideal spot from which to shoot pictures when another instantaneous, unmistakable impression suddenly came: Stop here.
It turned out to be a perfect vantage point. I got out of the car, stretched and glanced at my wristwatch. It was 8:30 a.m. What a glorious morning!
Fresh. Clear. Clean. Quiet. Peaceful.
Mount St. Helens herself was silhouetted against a pale-yellow, cloudless sunrise. There was barely enough light yet to do more than merely outline the tall trees and zigzag logging roads that laced the area. All was green and serene, hushed and calm. What a relaxing place to be. The only sounds were bird calls and the rippling Toutle River alongside me.
I drank deeply of the fresh evergreen-scented air and stretched my arms to the luxuriant forest around me and the mountain looming above. This was where it was all at. This was the eternal where I could really sense God. How could anyone not see Him in these magnificent mountains that would stand forever, in these vast forests that had flourished for thousands of years? For real sustenance, I needed only to take off into the wilderness and return refreshed, with renewed mental strength.
Taking my 35mm camera, I aimed it at the mountain to take a few shots.
My breath caught.
An awesome, immense black plume suddenly rocketed from the peak! More angry-looking plumes joined it. As they billowed larger and larger they mushroomed together into furiously boiling clouds, roiling black, blue and yellow-rimmed, like an exploding atomic bomb.
I clicked off four shots of the awesomely beautiful and incredible sequence.
But I wasn’t ready for what happened next.
The side of the mountain moved. It was the bulging part the volcanologist had pointed out as dangerous. Slowly and majestically at first, like a slow-motion film, billions of tons of rock and earth began descending, then a portion of it cascaded faster and faster, heading … straight into the valley where I was!
I leaped into the car, whipped it around and raced back down the mountain road. Through the rearview mirror I saw a horrifying sight. Instead of a lazy mud slide, an immense 20-foot-high wall of what looked like steaming, wet cement was overtaking me like a speeding tidal wave! Churning with boulders and stumps, it charged madly, snapping giant trees like twigs, burying everything in its path.
Obviously I was to be its next victim!
I floored the accelerator and my car careened and bounced down the mountain road reaching 60, 70 miles per hour. Even so the tidal wave of molten mud loomed higher and higher in my rearview mirror. It was traveling nearly 150 miles per hour, and was 100 city blocks in size!
I had to find higher ground! Frantically I searched for a turn-off road. Oh! A logging road just ahead. I wrenched the wheel, careening onto it, and had reached a slight rise when the steaming, roaring wall caught up. It struck a little valley before me with a dull boom and the road ahead exploded into trees, rocks and earth skyrocketing 100 feet into the air.
I slammed to a stop, shifted into reverse and screeched backward. But the road behind me was gone, too.
I was caught on a tiny island surrounded by a raging torrent of hot ooze.
I’m used to danger as part of my job. But never before had I been so terrifyingly trapped.
I knew I was dead. The road was gone, the mountain was coming down on top of me!
I shot out of the car, grabbing my still camera and the TV sound camera, all 42 pounds of it, probably as a reflex action from my years as a newsman. I knew I had to get to higher ground! More slides could bury me at any moment. I was also in an area below the mountain where the heavier-than-air carbon dioxide gas could collect.
But to reach higher ground meant crossing 200 feet of still-flowing mud that followed the main slide wall.
I had no other choice. Tentatively. I stepped into it. It was like quicksand, but my foot found bottom. Holding my cameras high above my head, I waded into the mire. Surprisingly, it was merely warm: it had to have been boiling when it started traveling down the snow-covered terrain.
As the muck reached my knees and then my waist, it took every ounce of my strength to keep slogging one foot before the other. Fighting my way through the sludge, I finally reached the other side and started up a hill. But when I’d walked only a few feet, I was completely exhausted, and staggered, gasping for breath.
What’s the matter with me? I thought. I’m not this winded after my daily four-mile jogging or even when climbing a mountain.
Carbon dioxide must be settling in my lungs, forcing oxygen out!
The thought kept me from slumping down to rest.
Only five or ten minutes had passed since the mountain first began erupting. Now it started getting dark. Heavy, dense clouds of volcanic ash blackened the sky, leaving only one light spot on the horizon. It was what remained of the sun, burning through the murk.
Well, I’ve had it, I thought. So I might as well shoot it.
Turning on the sound camera, I tried to describe what was going on because I thought these would be my last words, and perhaps someone would find the camera. The ash, now falling like fine grit. was so thick I struggled for every breath. It took superhuman effort to sob out the words between frantic, chest-heaving gasps.
“Dear God! Whoever finds this … I can’t see—it’s too dark. I’ve left the car behind … I’m walking toward the only light I can see—on top of a ridge. I can hear the mountain behind me rumbling. I never thought I’d really believe this or say this, but at this moment … I honest to God believe I’m dead …
“There’s really no … no way to truly describe these feelings … The ash is in my eyes … It’s getting very hard to breathe … It hurts to talk … it hurt, hurts to breathe … It burns my eyes.”
I tried using my shirt for a mask, but it made things even worse. About 15 minutes had passed since I’d seen the first angry plume through my viewfinder, and now it had turned completely dark, as if a pitch-black blanket had come down over everything.
Gritty, sandy ash pelted down on me. Roiling, volcanic clouds above were creating their own weather. Hot winds raged. Lightning flashed and cracked. Fires shot up where the bolts struck. Thunder cannonaded, and the ground heaved and shook.
I could hear Mount St. Helens still rumbling as she belched smoke and ash. She wouldn’t stop. She just wouldn’t stop.
It was like words I had heard from the Bible: “He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.” (Revelation 9:2, RSV)
It got darker and darker.
“Oh, dear God … God this is hell … I just can’t describe it—it’s pitch-black. Just pitch-black! This is hell on earth I’m walking through…”
I’d jogged every day. I’d scuba dived. I’d climbed mountains. I’d considered myself in excellent physical condition. But breathing gas and ash was beyond my endurance. Death was closing in.
“One step at a time—if I can just keep walking. God, if I can just breathe … It’s now totally pitch-black — I can’t see to keep on walking … I’ll just have to sit down here and wait it out.”
From scuba diving, I had learned to conserve air by staying motionless. So I spent the next hours in complete darkness, slumped still.
But my mind wouldn’t stay still.
No one knew where I was! Naturally I hadn’t phoned anyone that early in the morning to tell them I was leaving. I thought about my mother and dad and sister at our family home near Seattle, and about my friends.
Now ash was falling so fast I felt I’d soon be buried beneath it and no one would ever find me.
I grieved about never seeing my family and friends again. I wished for the chance to tell them how much they’d meant to me. If I could only, somehow, be given ten more minutes to drop in and let them know. Just ten minutes. Just ten minutes so I could tell them.
Then I thought about Sunshine, my glossy blue. green and yellow parrot. And Cornelius, my macaw, who shrieked each time a bicycler pedaled past his window. I thought about my pet Everglades rat snake and my lazy Burmese python I kept in terrariums in a corner of my apartment. I had always liked the patterns on their skins.
Who would take care of them all?
I thought of those with whom I’d worked, and attended church. I recalled that I sometimes hadn’t been too patient with what they said, did or believed. If I got uptight, I simply took off into the mountains and forests. The out-of-doors always relaxed me.
Now I wouldn’t come away from it alive …
And yet I felt God was somehow watching over me in spite of my circumstances. That thought was comforting, and soon I began to feel strangely relaxed sitting there. The falling ash was sort of lulling, and I thought to myself, I’ll just stay here.
Then that instantaneous, unmistakable impression came again: Get up and keep going!
How could I? I’d reached the end. I’d eaten nothing since the night before. I still carried the precious camera gear, although I’d lost some lenses from my vest pockets during my wanderings in the blackout. It was late afternoon now—eight or nine hours on a mountain that was still rumbling.
But I got up and walked some more.
Eventually the sky lightened somewhat so I was able to see some of my surroundings. And I couldn’t believe my eyes; what I was viewing was even more weird than the pitch-blackness!
It had been such a beautiful green valley. Meadows, elk, deer, wildlife of all kinds. Now it was gone. Instead I faced a bleak, ghastly landscape of bone-gray ash as far as I could see. Several inches of ash covered everything, stumps, trees, rocks. Not far away it had mounded over a deer’s body, silting even his protruding horns.
In the silence, everything looked, felt and smelled like death. I was the only living thing in sight. And I felt I wouldn’t be alive for long.
If by some miracle I was going to make it out of here at all, I knew that help had to come from outside of myself. From above. I knew I had reached the end.
My prayer wasn’t formal; it was pleading:
“God … It’s very, very hard to breathe in this … if only I could keep walking. If only I could do something. If only I could do something, You know … instead of just sitting here.”
Many hours passed, then as I sat there in the deathly silence, staring at the ashen desolation, a distant sound startled me, a faint thump-thump-thump. As it grew louder. I looked up with a pounding heart.
Helicopters! I watched them fly over, one by one.
But one by one they passed on by.
Naturally they couldn’t see me; I was covered with gray ash the same color as everything else. But wait! A fire would help them spot me. I slapped my pockets. How dumb. Some outdoorsman I was—no matches.
Maybe there was a flare in my TV news car! In all my wanderings I had tried to stay close to it. although climbing higher.
From within came a reserve of strength—and hope—to help me clamber back down the slope and wade through the muck again to the car. After scratching around inside, sure enough, I found a flare! I was thankful for the co-worker who’d put it there.
I recrossed the mire and climbed the hill again, setting up the flare just as another aircraft thump-thumped overhead.
It’d be so great to be rescued at last! Rescued! Rescued!
But that chopper, too, passed by. No one saw the flare.
And that was also understandable. The whole hillside as far as I could see was already dotted with fires—ignited by lightning bolts. My hope fizzled even faster than the flare.
Dear God … Oh, please! Please …
Just as the flare began to burn down, another instantaneous, unmistakable impression came: Use it to light three fires.
Of course; three fires, three shots, three anything is an international sign of distress.
So when the next thump-thump-thump came overhead, someone saw me—all because of my three fires.
A Coast Guard helicopter descended, and never had I seen such a welcome sight. As it neared the ground, however, the rotor blades whipped up such thick clouds of powdery ash that the pilot and crew could see neither me nor where to land.
So it rose up a ways and lowered a basket for me to get in. I tried to grab hold of the swinging basket. But the ash was suffocating and blinding. I couldn’t see the basket. The crew couldn’t see the ground, the basket or me.
The pilot made more passes. A smaller Army helicopter tried. Each result was the same. Failure.
I was totally frustrated. I’d been climbing and fighting the mountain all day, breathing gas and ash. There was just no strength left. I was absolutely exhausted. I’d never make it off the mountain after all.
But through my hazy mind, yet another instantaneous, unmistakable impression came: Go up the road a ways.
Sure enough—the road was a little wider ahead. It also was inundated by ash, of course, but it allowed the chopper to maneuver. I again found enough strength to struggle toward it.
To avoid as much as possible stirring up the talcum-powder ash, the crew let out 150 feet of steel cable with the basket dangling from it.
Even their being 150 feet high didn’t help much — the dust was still blinding. Trying to see and breathe in it was even worse than it had been during the previous hours of complete darkness.
Yet I knew … it’s now or never.
The basket bounced and bumped along the ground, disappearing in billows of dust. I held my breath and leaped into the thick, suffocating clouds, desperately groping for my only hope.
Then a miracle happened.
I grabbed the basket.
It lay on its side. I snatched hold of it with one hand, heaved the camera gear in with the other and was diving in when the chopper jerked up, slamming the heavy basket rim against my head.
Everything went black.
I regained consciousness to find myself swinging in the basket.
The helicopter was as high above me as a ten-story building. How thin that fragile cable looked! Would it support my 200 pounds, camera gear and basket? I peered down over the basket’s edge at the gray, rocky terrain flying past below. That was a mistake. I was nauseated when I was finally pulled up safely inside the aircraft, where I was treated for exposure, exhaustion and gas inhalation. I remember how fresh the oxygen smelled.
But I don’t remember much after that until I entered the hospital emergency room ten hours after my ordeal began, when the medics phoned my TV station with. “Hey—we have one of your photographers here.”
It was during my overnight stay in the hospital for observation that I learned Mount St. Helens was 1300 feet lower in elevation as a result of her blowing a cubic mile of earth off her top. The avalanche of mud that had charged by me had swept on down the Toutle River—clear into the mighty Columbia River where it filled the channel and blocked ship traffic.
I thought back over my experience. As my car careened down that mountain road, had I been a few feet ahead or a few feet behind, a little faster or a little slower, my life would’ve been gone.
I’d always thought of the outdoors as being safe and secure. But during those ten hours, I saw a mountain fall apart. I saw a forest disappear. It wiped away many of my set beliefs.
I saw that God is the only One Who is unmovable, unshakable, infallible. As the Bible says, He is our refuge and strength. And He was there with me in that desolation. I feel somehow that I’m being allowed to start over. I’ve always been a quiet person, keeping things to myself. Now I’m more willing to open up. to accept others’ ideas, to be a better listener, to be more thankful.
In fact, because of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, it seems God’s given me not only ten minutes more but many minutes more—whatever is in His master plan for me.
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