We're reading Richard Waitt's excellent In the Path of Destruction, and we're still in the areas with some of the most catastrophic damage. Being caught up in a volcanic eruption is no joke.
Content Warning: this one's going to have some really horrific injuries involved, and not everyone lives. But there are some really heartwarming moments, too. Hang in there!
At Hoffstadt Creek, non-union loggers Jim Scymanky, Leonty Skorohodoff, Evlanty Sharipoff, and José Dias y Miranda are thinning firs that Sunday. They're 12.5 miles away from Mount St. Helens. It's not far enough by at least three miles.
José, a devout Catholic, had worked Saturday and overnighted with the work crew, but wasn't working on his Sabbath. He was up at the pickup truck while the other men took chainsaws to trees. The other three had just stopped working, trying to place a bizarre screeching noise they could hear even over the chainsaws, when José came barreling down toward them in his bare feet, screaming, "El volcán esta explotando!" Then trees began to tremble and fall. Then they were enveloped in a fiercely-hot, ash-laden blast.
"I was being cremated," Jim told his interviewers from the USGS, describing unbearable heat. His skin had burned through his clothes. And the world had gone from verdant green forest to alien gray hellscape in less than five minutes.
They were all horribly injured, but managed to stumble to their damaged pickup truck - the only shelter in the ashfall. Once the air cleared, they stumbled toward Camp Baker. But miles down the road, they ran into a debris avalanche that had buried the road more than 100 feet deep in boulders and detritus. They had nowhere to go, but Evlanty tried to find another way out, despite Jim's plea to stick together. Later, José decided to climb the debris avalanche. The remaining two waited where they had water for rescue that never came. They watched a mudflow churn down the valley, carrying logs, rocks, and logging equipment. They could see helicopters, but none came close. They were cold from their burns. It hurt to stand, hurt to lie down. They grew weak.
"How long does it take to die?" Jim wondered.
National Guard helicopters rescued them eight hours after the eruption. They were life-flighted to a burn center in Portland later that day. José was later found and brought to another hospital.
Jim Scymanky was the only survivor.
Of all the stories from Mount St. Helens, the ordeal of these four loggers has always left me with the most visceral feeling of anguish and horror. I can't even imagine suffering what they endured. They were almost thirteen miles away, and yet so horrifically burned that three of them perished from their injuries.
We don't respect the power of volcanoes half as much as we should.
Now, we're along the Green River, with Dale and Leslie Davis and Albert Brooks. They were the survivors closest to the volcano within the devastated area.
They were driving toward the mountain, looking for a better view, when it erupted. They saw the lateral blast cloud coming toward them, throwing trees ahead of it, following the contour of the land as it roared and boiled their way.
Leslie: "It's coming fast!"
Dale: RUN AWAY!
Dale tries to back the truck up and turn around, but it gets stuck. They roll up the windows and brace themselves. The cloud slams into them, breaking the right wing window, rocking the pickup and burning short-sleeved Albert through the broken window. The intense heat melts the grill and leaves them wondering if the gas tank will blow. Fine, powdery dust chokes them. Chunks pound the truck.
When the chaos subsides, still afraid the truck will blow, they start walking out. Dale gets burned in hot mud at Schultz Creek. They find a bridge and cross.
Leslie: "This had been a forest, but now the trees were down."
They walk for hours, unable to find water cool and clean enough to drink. Eventually, they're picked up by two men in a pickup truck, seventeen miles from where they'd been trapped in the eruption.
They survived because they were behind a ridge. Had they been on top of it, they would be dead.
One of the really eerie things a lot of witnesses mention is that the lateral blast cloud made no sound. They'd see it coming toward them, huge and black and relentless, but it was silent for many. They would only hear the trees as they started to fall around them.
On the Green River sixteen miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, the blast cloud is so hot that Robert Payne and Mike Hubbard only survive by diving into the river and pulling their wet shirts over their faces, something Payne learned in Navy boot camp. He said the cloud was hotter than the "water with fire on it" they'd been made to jump into during training.
When the initial cloud has passed, they watch in awe as the enormous eruption column rises. The air clears enough for them to search for their companion, Keith Moore, but the column expands and envelopes them in darkness again. Fearing burning heat, they return to the river, which has been warmed 15 degrees and filled with grit. Eventually, they're able to climb out, and then hike until "two half-drunk teenagers" pick them up and drive them to safety.
(Keith, unfortunately, didn't survive. In a weird twist, he's Leslie and Dale's son-in-law.)
People can react very strangely to emergencies. As the black blast cloud approaches Sue Ruff and Bruce Nelson, the advance wind blowing flames from the fire pit three feet along the ground, Bruce backs away slowly and pops marshmallows into his mouth, staring at the cloud.
The two of them were so lucky. They were thrown into the root-ball of a toppled tree and sheltered there. Two of their friends, trying to take cover in a tent, didn't make it.
Bruce, a baker, said the heat over their heads had to have reached 500-600 degrees F.
They try to walk out when the initial cloud passes, but get pelted by debris, choked by ash and sulfur. They shelter under a fallen log.
Bruce: "Sue, if we get out of this, will you marry me?"
That may possibly be the most unique marriage proposal of all time.
Later, they find their camp. Their dog Cody emerges relatively unscathed from some debris. They find two of their other friends alive, one badly burned, the other with a broken hip. They have to leave them to go find help. Hiking out, they find dead and dying animals. Sue tries to wash off a bird, but can't save it. They encounter an old man who has to keep popping his glass eye out to clean it. Eventually, a National Guard helicopter finds them and lifts them out.
All the dogs make it, too.
Note to self: if caught in a lateral blast, try to shelter under downed trees.
Oh, dear lord, Dan Balch was so badly burned that when he drank, water oozed from his neck. Buzz Smith, who had run into him after surviving the blast with his kids, said there wasn't any skin left. But, thanks to Buzz and the National Guard helicopter that found them, then the medical staff who cared for him after, he survived.
And that's the end of Chapter 9. We'll be out of the devastated area going forward, so we mostly should have less harrowing survivors' stories, and fewer fatalities.
We're all agreed, then, that we're not going to go camping anywhere near an active volcano, right?
Here, you need some emergency kittens. Have two Norwegian Forest Cat mamas nursing their kittens while cuddling.
That's a bit better.
If you want to forge ahead, you can pick up your own copy of In the Path of Destruction here. Purchases through that link help support my blogging, so thank you!