Story #11: Outrunning St. Helens

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On Mother’s Day, May 11, 1980, one week prior to the eruption, Kathleen Colman stands with Mount St. Helens behind her. (Courtesy Kathleen Colman)
By Kathleen Coleman

The story of my whereabouts on May 18, 1980, began the previous evening. I had invited my brother and sister-in-law, Lynn and Julie Westlund, who had just moved to Washington from Wisconsin, and our friends, Mike Pearson and Sherri Mason, to dinner earlier that day. Don Laplaunt, whom I was dating at the time, and his sons, Daniel and David, were due to arrive at my Packwood home that evening.

When they finally got there around 7 p.m., Don suggested that we go to the Vanson Peak area, which was above the Green River, and about 12 miles directly north of the volcano. We could spend the night, have a breakfast cookout the next morning and spend the rest of the day watching Mount St. Helens perform. Just a week earlier, we had picnicked at that very spot and the mountain had fascinated us by sending steam “poofs” into the air 30 or so times over the course of three hours. It had been a fun-filled, sunny day.

Well, I was not ready for a campout. I still don’t know if I had a premonition about the mountain or if I just didn’t feel that I had enough time to prepare for an overnight outing. At any rate, I really didn’t feel like going.

My brother’s pickup was low on gas, and all service stations were closed for the day by this time. Mike talked of joining us the next day, as he thought it would be a good opportunity to try out his new camera, but he and Sherri said they just couldn’t get ready to go with us that evening. Lynn figured that he had enough gas to get to the camping spot and that as long as Mike planned to be there the following day, he could borrow enough gas from Mike to get back to a station on the way home on Sunday. So, after a lot of fussing and fuming on my part, we left for Vanson Peak after dinner on Saturday night.

A bobcat, its eyes glowing the headlights, crossed the road when we were almost to our campsite. It was beautiful – the first one I’d ever seen in the wild. Arriving at the chosen camp around midnight, we unloaded boxes of food and equipment from the vehicles and settled down for the night. And a gorgeous night it was. Millions of stars graced the sky, and without any city lights to interfere, they seemed all the brighter. Lying directly to the south of us was the object of our late night excursion: the silhouette of Mount St. Helens.

Daniel and David slept in Don’s car, one in the front seat, the other in the back; Lynn and Julie were in the bed of their pickup; Don and I rolled our sleeping bags out on the ground. I didn’t sleep at all well that night – couldn’t seem to find any place on the ground that didn’t hit me in the wrong spot – just tossed and turned. Or maybe it was, again, a premonition, or perhaps it was the Lord keeping me partially awake so that I wouldn’t sleep through what would happen a few hours later.

I awakened (for the umpteenth time) to a low rumble, rather like distant thunder. Don was out of his sleeping bag, and Lynn had gotten out of the truck. Both were looking at the mountain. Don said something to the effect of: “Helens erupting – there she goes!” My glasses were in the car, and so was my camera, so I shouted for someone to get them for me, as I was still in my sleeping bag, and hadn’t dressed yet. I started pulling my clothes on, and someone handed me the glasses and camera.

Kathleen Coleman’s only photo of the Mount St. Helens eruption. (Kathleen Coleman)

What had started as the same innocent white puffs of the previous Sunday now expanded into boiling, purple-black clouds! I took one picture. In retrospect, that is very odd for me, as photography has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and my camera has always been with me. But that morning, when I should have been shooting frame after frame, I only took one lousy picture! (And when I had the film developed, that photo was out of focus.) I was just too scared, I guess.

All at once, we realized that this was nothing like last week’s eruptions – things were getting out of hand too quickly. The size of the initial emission multiplied in seconds, and rolled on toward us, consuming everything in its path. It seemed that everyone yelled at once, “Let’s get out of here – this is the BIG one!”

Lynn got into his truck to try to start it, but we called him to the car. Everyone scrambled in, and we were out of there! (Later, Lynn said he didn’t even remember trying to take his truck.) All we could see was what appeared to be a giant tidal wave overtaking us. From the time we heard the roar and saw the explosion until we raced away in the car, I’m guessing not more than a minute had elapsed.

The cloud’s size intensified unbelievably in just seconds. We had not bothered to pick up any of our camping gear, only thought of saving our own skins. I have never been so frightened in my life. I was also worried about Don, who had high blood pressure: he was red as a beet and breathing very, very fast, and I prayed he wouldn’t have a heart attack or stroke as he negotiated curves and hairpin turns on the gravel road, reaching speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour. We were in a race for our lives! The volcanic ash cloud kept right up with us, and loomed over our heads, growing ever larger and blacker. The wind picked up, blowing branches and leaves into the road. We feared that we would find a tree blown across the road as we rounded each corner but never did. Lightning streaked through the cloud, which threatened to engulf us, but Don continued to drive at break-neck speeds down the mountain road, and to what we hoped was safety.

We were nearing Riffe Lake (maybe two or three miles from it, I guess), when we met a small pickup truck heading uphill. There were two people in the cab, and two sitting in lawn chairs in the bed of it. They were going uphill as fast as we were going downhill, and I’ve wondered many times whatever happened to them. Shortly thereafter, we encountered several camps along the lakeside and stopped to warn them that the mountain had blown and that they should run for their lives. They all seemed unconcerned.

By the time we reached the 108 Bridge over the Cowlitz River, the ash began to fall. It splattered on the windshield in thumbnail-sized drops of hot mud. Each drop sounded like it cracked the glass, and in seconds visibility was practically nonexistent. Don hollered to us to find something with which he could wipe off the windshield. Someone found a pair of undershorts on the floor of the back seat and handed them to him. He rolled the window down halfway, and still maintaining the 50 to 60 mph speed, he kept wiping a small space of windshield through which he could see to drive.

Somehow, we made it to Highway 12 (we were maybe 15 miles from it when we began our race for life). The cloud appeared to be heading for Packwood, so we turned in the opposite direction, toward Morton, and the area of sky that looked the lightest. The ash continued to fall. Don decided to take the Davis Lake cutoff into Morton, thinking that there would be less traffic on it than on the main highway. Fortunately, there were few cars on this road. Continuing west of Morton on Bear Canyon Road (Hwy 508), we headed for Chehalis. A few miles out of Morton, the ash stopped pelting us, and we began to breathe more easily.

The group with ash-covered windshield at a friend’s home in Onalaska: (left rear) Don LaPlaunt, (front from left) David LaPlaunt and Lynn and Julie Westlund and (right) Daniel LaPlaunt. (Kathleen Coleman)

We didn’t stop until we reached the home of friends in Onalaska. It was then I realized I had left my boots under my sleeping bag. I remembered putting a pair of sandals in the car the night before, but when I searched for them, I only found one – the mate must have been dragged out of the car when we unloaded our gear. After having a cup of coffee, we continued toward Chehalis and arrived at Don’s mother’s house around 10 a.m.

Our complete attention for the rest of the day was taken up by watching television coverage of the eruption, and we could not believe that we actually had made it out alive. Experts figured that the blast of poisonous gases emitted from the volcano were about 800 degrees Celsius and had traveled at close to 200 mph. Had we wasted any more time picking up our belongings or trying to start Lynn’s pickup, we would have been overtaken by the cloud and killed by the gases and heat. Apparently, as we headed downhill toward Riffe Lake, the updraft from it kept the ash cloud aloft for a longer period of time, thus enabling us to travel further before the ash started falling.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced: I knew I was dead. I can only thank God for coming to our rescue and helping us to escape a nightmare that many others didn’t.

My brother, sister-in-law and I couldn’t return to our homes in Packwood for five days because of the ash damage, so we stayed in Chehalis during that time. Twenty-two days after the eruption, Lynn and Don were allowed a brief visit to our campsite to retrieve what they could of our belongings. The canopy on Lynn’s truck was dented due to the weight of the ash that covered it, but when they removed that, the roof popped back up and wasn’t hurt at all. He was able to drive his pickup out of the area without a problem. All our camping gear was recovered except for a quart of homemade huckleberry syrup, which I had brought along for a pancake breakfast and the mate to the sandal we had found in the trunk of the car.

For a time – maybe up to three years after our escape – every time I heard a jet or thunder, my first thought was, “I wonder if that’s the mountain erupting again.” It doesn’t faze me anymore. In fact, I’m rather fascinated with learning more about the way Mother Nature operates! I guess time does heal all wounds, as the saying goes.

The spring of 1981 found me as a member of a U.S. Forest Service planting crew and returning to the devastated area northeast of Mount St. Helens, where we planted willow and cottonwood cuttings around streambeds. The cuttings were small branches taken from live trees. These trees love water, live in moist areas, root easily and grow quickly. The reason for planting them was to help eliminate the soil erosion due to the absence of vegetation that had been killed by the eruption.

On this planting experience, I discovered the largest patch of the biggest morel mushrooms I have ever seen. They were growing along the 26 Road, popping through a thick layer of ash. Though I wanted to, I didn’t pick any of the morels to take home, as we’d heard that the bacteria that caused Legionnaires’ Disease had been discovered in an area of the blast zone, so I didn’t want to take a chance on eating them, regardless of how good they looked. I later learned that the disease is caused from inhaling the bacteria, so ingesting them may not have been a problem. I suppose I’ll never know.

I have been back to the devastated area many times since our harrowing experience. I always marvel at how the ground cover is filling in more and more as the years pass. And a great deal of wildlife has returned, for as the plants grew and provided food for the animals, they came back to the area. The trees haven’t grown back yet – at least in the monument area. It will take hundreds of years for them to fight their way back through natural regeneration. But they will return, also. And so it goes on, the cycle of life.

Among my U.S. Forest Service duties, each spring and fall I was an inspector, checking the quality of tree planting performed by crews under contract with the Packwood Ranger District. For a number of weeks the hours were long and went on seven days a week until contract completion. Because I had already put in a full week, my co-worker, Alan, was the inspector for Sunday, May 18.

The crew was planting a unit on the north side of Skate Mountain, about 32 air miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, and when the ash cloud reached them, visibility was practically nil.

After I returned home, five days post-eruption, I learned that the planting crew had followed Alan, who walked all the way, slowly leading the vehicles out to make sure the drivers knew where the road edges were. After many hours and many miles, they got back to the ranger station. My goodness, I don’t know if I could have done that, but such would have been my duty had I worked that fateful day.

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