Story #19: We thought we were dead

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By John Killeen

We were in a mountain cabin with a few neighbors and an asleep when the mountain went. In the mountains, it was not uncommon to have a large storm violently shake the cabin. What we took as storm concussions and heavy rain were literally rocks bouncing off of the cabin roof. The thunder was the mountain erupting.

When we finally awoke, it was still dark, but our bodies said it should be day. My friend looked out the window and said it was snowing – and warm snow. I thought he was still drunk from our Saturday night, but that is when it sunk in that the mountain had really blown.

All we knew about volcanoes was that there was always lava and we had to move out. We grabbed a few things we could carry. Our car made it about one block before the engine seized from the ash intake. We walked back to the cabin to prepare for the five-mile walk to town. We put bandanas over our face as when the wind came up the ash caused a total whiteout. We stayed five feet apart at the most, as you could not see beyond that, sort of like grey flour 12 inches deep. The walk was difficult, and we had no idea what was happening, just that we had to keep moving and stay together. The walk was hard in the changing winds and heavy ash. My friend had asthma, we stopped constantly, and I stayed with him to get him into town

Once in the nearest town of Packwood, we got the news story but knew that we were not out of the woods yet. Nothing could operate in the ash, and evacuation was not any time soon. All we had was the clothes on our back and no money, food or water.

A Red Cross evacuation center had been built, and we became instant volunteers to help. We helped cook for the people, and there were a lot of transients and tree planters displaced by the eruption. We slept on cots, helped in the kitchen and got word to my parents we were alive.

For years, my parents had a copy of the Seattle paper that had us as the initial people either dead or missing. It cannot be overstated that we thought we were dead at any time during that walk but were going out together. We just fought through it and made it out. We still have a bond 38 years later. When people tell me about a little ash in their yard, we just shake our heads. I am sure that as much as we consumed in that hike out, it will catch up with us some day.

By the fourth or fifth day, they were able to retrofit some buses with special air snorkels to get us out to a muster point in Centralia. I still to this day am the person with the disaster kits and stockpile. I lived firsthand how the earth will change our life in a moment, and we never know when that moment is.

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