Mount St. Helens: The week that turned heaven into hell

Mount St. Helens: The week that turned heaven into hell


It turned day to night, order to chaos and amusement to shock and terror. In hours an expanse of thick forest became a drab wasteland of ash, mud and fallen trees. Some said it transformed a heaven on earth into an ugly hell.

When the top of Mount St. Helens blew off with the fury of an atom bomb, it blasted into our lives.

As the eyes of the nation turned to Southwest Washington in the week that followed, the magnitude of a tragic and unforgettable Sunday sank in. Its emotional aftermath came to be written in faces and voices and actions. A woman cried over the mudhole where her riverside house once stood; a father's hands shook with frustration as he prepared to backpack into the devastated area to search for his missing son; an eerie silence engulfed a caravan of 80 cars and trucks of Toutle and Silver Lake residents briefly visiting their homes Tuesday afternoon to retrieve valuables.

May 18, 1980, began like any warm, spring Sunday. People slept in, went out for breakfast, got ready for church, drank coffee and read the morning paper. Four babies were born in Longview that day, including one at 8:41a.m.

By that time of morning a dark gray cloud was silently billowing, rapidly growing on the horizon.

And by that time, although nobody but its unfortunate witnesses realized it, a horrendous explosion had ripped off the top 1,300 feet off what was once considered the most symmetrically attractive mountain in the Northwest. Geologists later pieced together what had happened.

The explosion occurred at 8:32 a.m. Although tree planters working just south of the peak didn't hear it, the blast rattled windows as far north as Bellingham. The sound – an irregular series of blasts – took 12 minutes to travel 145 miles to Port Angeles.

Three cubic kilometers, about one-eighth of the mountain, blew away from its north face.

At 8:34, a shock wave knocked down trees up to 12 miles away. The energy force led a huge mass of volcanic debris. One geologist said the blast was equivalent of between 10 million and 50 million tons of TNT. If it were at the high end of the scale, it would match the largest nuclear bomb ever exploded.

The first bodies recovered from the area indicated death was instantaneous, a National Guard spokesman said. Some of the dead had their arms folded, their faces gazing toward the fatal mountain.

Lightning storms began at 8:35 a.m. as the eruption generated static electricity. Lightning bolts touched off fires, many of which were later smothered by falling ash. A pyroclastic flow – a fiery avalanche of volcanic materials and gases – headed from Mount St. Helens north toward Spirit Lake.

Tremendous clouds of ash billowed east from the crater. Lt would bring darkness in daytime to Eastern Washington. Heavy ash fall would continue for 15 hours, crippling air and road traffic and stranding thousands.

Deadly mud flows

At 11:15, mud flows swept down both forks of the Toutle River, killing motorists, snapping a dozen or more bridges and sweeping away homes and property.

Nancy Althof, stunned and shaken Monday after she lost her family's three-bedroom home by the Toutle River, described what she witnessed after fleeing to a hill: "We watched the mud rise. We didn't think we'd ever see it hit the top of the bank, but it came maybe 20 feet above that. It a happened very fast. Mud was (flowing) very fast and full of debris and logs. Cars and trucks were floating by like toys. Then it was like the house was crushed. It crashed and that's all there was. It took maybe five minutes.

"We watched the houses of 10 neighbors go. It was awful."

Logjams hit the Cowlitz River at 1:30 p.m. as mud flows and flooding continued.

Ash fall continued Monday. At 5:09 p.m., airborne observers sighted a pyroclastic flow. At 5:14, they saw a massive flow of mud, ash and debris, called a dam for simplicity's sake, blocking huge volumes of water from the flow. It was thought to be up to 17 miles long and two miles thick in places.

The shoreline of the new Spirit Lake was reported 150 feet higher than before.

On Monday, scientists worried that the mass of material in the Toutle's north fork would slosh free and begin a destructive tumble down the river valley. Their warnings triggered more evacuations downstream. The huge dam would "break itself, possibly in a matter of hours," Joe Rosenbaum of the U.S. Geological Survey said Monday morning. "It will happen soon."

But as the days wore on, the geologists’ fears subsided. At week's end, they would not say the dam was unsafe – but they said that didn't mean it was safe, either.

The uncertainty reiterated the caution that had punctuated the scientists' statements since the beginning of the eruptions. They admitted that Sunday's blast caught them by surprise.

It was a type of eruption that happens only once in 10,000 years, a scientist said.

Religious experience

An observer in Cougar on Sunday said that viewing the huge steam and ash cloud with its streaks of lightning was like a "biblical experience." Consequences of the ash fall and mud flows did indeed seem as if the maker of Mount St. Helens had triggered plagues of an Old Testament scale.

"You can't escape it,” a Morton resident said of the blizzard-like volcanic fallout. "Ash is seeping in under the door and through cracks in the window. It's just horrible."

If its physical effects were staggering, so was the turmoil it caused in the lives of thousands of persons. Seventeen deaths had been confirmed by Friday, with the toll sure to rise. At week's end, 179 persons had been reported missing, although authorities believed many of those were not lost on the mountain.

More than 1,000 persons had Ieft their homes — temporarily or permanently — along the Toutle River, in Castle Rock and in low-lying lands along the Cowlitz River. Law enforcement officers, search and rescue teams and disaster relief agencies whipped into action. Men and women who would work for days with little sleep fanned out, searching for survivors and helping the homeless.

At various headquarters, they gobbled aspirin and drank gallons of coffee and cola in a resolute drive to deal with a disaster such as they had never experienced.

"EVAC, EVAC, EVAC," a Cowlitz County sheriff's deputy had scrawled in marking pen on a plastic sheet over a map of the evacuated Mount St. Helens area. .

Among those most deeply affected were persons with friends or relatives of the missing and dead. In a scene repeated too often, Sallie Nichols of Longview recalled the last time she saw her son, 21-year-old Terry Crall, who was missing along with his girlfriend, Karen Varner. Mrs. Nichols said through tears, "I was going to Seattle, and Terry told me to have a good time and I told him to have a good time. That was the last thing he told me." Four survivors from the party Crall and Miss Varner were camping with said they believed the couple were in a tent that was buried by falling trees.

Lodge owner Truman

Among the missing and almost certainly dead was Harry Truman, the 84-year-old Mount St. Helens Lodge owner who gained national attention when he refused to leave his home of 54 years near the shore of Spirit Lake. A curmudgeon who stood up to the volcano like an unarmed knight against a dragon, Harry talked to visitors on the day before the eruption. He said with a hint of awe: "It's uncanny seeing the mountain over there. You know, you can't really see how big it is."

Observers said his lodge was under about 30 feet of material. Truman evidently went down with the landscape he loved.

And there was David Johnston.

It had been the personable, 30-year-old geologist's turn to watch the mountain from a camp a few miles away. On March 27, the day the mountain emitted its first puffs of smoke, Johnston stood by the road at the base of the mountain and told reporters, "It is extremely dangerous where we are standing. If it exploded, we would die. It is like standing next to a dynamite keg with the fuse lit – only we don't know how long the fuse is."

In his last transmission to his U.S. Geological Survey colleagues in Vancouver, be radioed, "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" And the line went silent.

There were also stories of survival. A Tacoma couple camping near the peak, Ronald Reitan, 19, and Venus Dergan, 20, were swept into the raging South Fork of the Toutle River. They managed to hang onto a log on a terrifying journey downstream of about three-quarters of a mile, and eventually were rescued by helicopter.

Mike and Lu Moore and their two young children lived through the blast, which seemed to hop over the valley where they intended to camp. A helicopter also lifted the Moores to safety.

The search for the living had its emotional lows as well as its highs. Toward week's end an Army unit from Fort Lewis was helping with the airborne search for survivors – and bodies. Helicopter pilot Steve Brooks wearily voiced his frustration.

"God, I wish we could find just one person alive."

President visits

A much-needed boost to local spirits, judging from a sampling of opinions after the event, was President Carter's visit Wednesday. He flew over the devastated area of 150 square miles, then stopped to visit victims at a Red Cross evacuation center at Cascade Middle School.

Before he left for Spokane to see the aftermath of the ash fallout, Carter described the "horrible looking sight.”

"It is the worst thing I have ever seen," he told reporters.

Like a Hollywood spectacular, there was even some comic relief amid the disaster.

An imposter who apparently had stolen a National Guard uniform and identification pulled off an impersonation of a "paramedic." He was given medical supplies at St. John's Hospital in Longview and went to Cascade Middle School, where he treated a number of evacuees.

His ruse ended after a hospital worker became suspicious and called the school. The 29-year-old man wound up undergoing psychiatric evaluation back where the act started, at St. John's.

On Day Six of the eruption aftermath came new word that the sudden melting of the volcano's snowpack had sent 110,000 cubic feet of water into Swift Reservoir – on the south side of the peak, where it was earlier thought the effects were minimal. The huge flow, which washed out bridges on the Little Muddy River, was double the historic record flood flow.

Some local residents still were being urged to conserve water as the week ended, since mud still clogged water intakes. Officials were estimating damage and deciding what could be done first. A federal disaster aid center was set up in a Kelso school.

As the initial shock subsided in communities around the mountain, some ventured to predict the post-eruption future. President Carter said the cleanup would take decades.

The U.S. Forest Service began preparations for millions of tourists this summer.

Geologists made an educated guess that the mountain would eventually restore its dome with lava flows.

And some residents who would have to dig out from the volcano said it wouldn't keep them down.

Karen and Jerry Cripe, newlyweds whose home was shoved 20 feet from its foundation by a mud flow in Castle Rock's Green Acres subdivision, were determined to start their lives anew.

"We did it once," said Karen, 38, as she and daughter Brenda, 19, packed their belongings. "We'll do it again."

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