Story #16: Difficult to be seen in the volcanic debris

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By Stephen Hart

In the mid 1970s, I was the emergency coordinator for Ham Radio operators in Cowlitz County. I also assisted the Cowlitz County Search and Rescue during those years. When the big eruption occurred on May 18, 1980, I went to the Emergency Operations Center in the Hall of Justice to coordinate Ham Radio operations that dealt with setting up shelters for persons who were evacuated from the Toutle River valley, the town of Toutle and the Silver Lake area.

The shelters were established at Castle Rock High School, Huntington Middle School in Kelso and Cascade Middle School in Longview. Several hundred persons were sheltered for several days while the emergency developed. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided food, cots and bedding for evacuees. People slept in the gymnasiums of the schools.

Ham Radio volunteers set up communications stations in these shelters to coordinate with Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers who were providing aid and comfort to evacuees. Ham operators set up and maintained six emergency communication stations and operated 24 hours each day with rotating shifts. Lists of evacuated personnel were passed to the Department of Emergency Services of Cowlitz County, and shelter requirements were forwarded to Red Cross and Salvation Army.

After the mudflow that filled the Toutle River valley solidified, evacuated persons were slowly allowed to return to homes that weren’t destroyed to assess damage and gather personal items. These residents were only allowed in for a short time with clearance of the county sheriff.

The Washington Air National Guard flew UH1 helicopters to the Toutle River valley the days after the eruption. The football field at Toutle High School was used as a staging area for the helicopters. A few days after the Sunday eruption, I, along with several other Ham Radio operators, joined helicopter crews to provide communications to ground teams as the search for missing persons developed. We boarded the “Hueys” at Kelso airport and flew to Toutle High School football field, which was a staging area.

On one occasion, I counted 14 choppers on the field. The sheriff’s office didn’t have the trained personnel with portable radios, so Hams were asked to provide communications. Search and rescue teams were dropped off at the last known points of missing persons to search for evidence.

These searches went on for several weeks. After the first day or two after the eruption, all of the survivors were rescued and brought to Kelso Airport and then to medical facilities. After several days passed, the helicopters and ground-search teams returned with only found remains in body bags. These were turned over to the county coroner for identification.

We worked with a Ham Radio operator in each helicopter and a ham on the ground with the search team. It was difficult to be seen in the volcanic debris on the ground where we were searching. So it was critical to have communications with the helicopters. The aircraft would be “talked in” to our pick-up position and often wouldn’t see the ground teams until they were a few hundred feet overhead. The Ham Radio operators who flew with the ground search teams aided in recovering 10 or 12 bodies of victims of the blast.

The Cowlitz County Ham Radio operators provided hundreds of hours of volunteer work in the days and weeks following the eruption of Mount St. Helens. I have some of the logs of the message traffic and call signs and have several photos of the work we did with the county sheriff officers and search and rescue teams.

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Now & then here and now…