One of the eeriest things I've ever seen is the video shot by KOMO News reporter Dave Crockett on May 18th, 1980. He was just 28 years old. Something woke him before dawn that Sunday morning, telling him this was the day to be there. Good reporter's instincts, that man.
I was a very young child, just wrapping my mind around this whole mountain-go-splodey thing, watching clouds of gray ash roil and tumble in the sky as Dave Crockett fought to survive on the slopes of the volcano. The idea that someone could be on it, caught up in the cataclysm, and survive, left me stunned.
I can't remember for certain if I first saw his video before or after I read Marion T. Place's outstanding children's book on the Mount St. Helens eruption. I do remember reading about this poor bloke, cut off by mudflows, choking in apocalyptic ashfall, walking toward the only light he can see. And through all of that, barely able to breathe and nearly certain he was going to die, he had the presence of mind to keep the camera running and narrate his experience. That, my friends, is a hardcore reporter. Place is a fine wordsmith, the kind who has you gasping alongside the survivor whilst you wonder how the hell you can possibly escape this. But no words, no matter how masterfully written, can equal the sucker-punch to the gut that is the footage he shot that day:
The darkness and that eerie light have never left me. Every time I've come across Dave Crockett's name in the years since, I've seen that darkness and heard his labored breathing. I remember him shouting his defiance at the mountain, triumphant and alive.
He was only 13 kilometers (8 miles) west of the summit, on the south side of the South Fork Toutle River, on that day. Talk about your front row seat! He was one of the survivors interviewed by USGS geologists, who used eyewitness accounts combined with physical data collected to piece together what had happened. His story is told in USGS Professional Paper 1250:
Less than 10 min after the beginning of the eruption, a huge mass of water, mud, and trees crashed down a small tributary within the South Fork Toutle River valley. It snapped off trees and "exploded" when it hit lows, bursting as much as 60 ft when it hit obstacles. A similar flow then swept across the road about 100 yd to the north, moving trees, rocks, and stumps. A few minutes later a substantial but much smaller flow, containing numerous trees and other debris, was still moving down the valley. About S min after the first flood, the witness crossed the flow path by wading through material like "warm concrete" and a flow of very muddy, cool water. The river returned to and stayed within its deep channel until about 1400, when there occurred a second smaller flood deep enough to spill out of the channel....
About 15 min after the start of the eruption, a dark cloud descended from the mountain and sandsized ash began raining down vertically. The witness sensed pressure pulses on his face and in his ears that seemed to correspond to periods of more intense ash fall. He experienced difficulty in breathing during the heavy ash fall and clearly attributed this difficulty to a lack of air, not to clogging of his nose and mouth with ash.
Scientific language often comes across as cold and dispassionate as a consequence of its focus on precision. But this eruption was so huge, what the survivors went through so extreme, that the enormity of it comes across even in technical terms. This was a life-changing event, one that Dave Crockett was lucky to survive. He got to spend a few more hours watching the mountain spill its magma chamber into the sky before being rescued by a helicopter later that afternoon. They got his car out later. It's now at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, and will go on display once they figure out where to put it.
KOMO News did a very nice 30th anniversary piece with him, where you can see his raw footage - which is even eerier. It drives home the fact that Dave Crockett is one hell of a resourceful and lucky man. I hope I'm lucky enough to meet him one day. It would be an honor.
The survivor's tales are that gleam of light in the darkness of destruction. They allow us to see the eruption from a human perspective. And they provided invaluable information that helped geologists understand what happened that day, which has saved lives at other volcanoes since, and will do so far into the future.
Johnson, Eric: "'I got to sit on a cliff and feel the earth move."' KOMONews.com. Last accessed 8/30/2012.
Lipman, Peter W., and Mullineaux, Donal R., Editors (1981): The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250.
Place, Marian T. (1981): Mount St. Helen's: A Sleeping Volcano Awakes. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company.