Story #29: Not among the missing

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On Sept. 4, 1976, (from left) Debbie Gibson, John Gibson and Dolores New pick huckleberries near then-peaceful Mount St. Helens. (Bob New)
Bob New’s daughter, Debbie Gibson, waterskis Aug. 2, 1976, on pristine Yale Lake, south of Mount St. Helens. The lake largely escaped destruction and remains a vacation destination for the New family. (Bob New)
By Robert New

My wife, Dolores, and I and her parents, Cecil and Melba Johnson, lived in Vancouver, Washington. Our “kids,” daughter Debbie and son-in-law John Gibson, lived in Renton. The News and Johnsons went to Renton for the weekend to help John and Debbie paint the exterior of their home. At the time of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, we six were outside, painting the exterior of the house.

My father-in-law, Cecil, and I were hunters. When we hunted and heard shooting, we sometimes speculated on the caliber of the gun that fired the shots. When the mountain blew, we heard the explosion, and Cecil remarked, “That fellow has a big gun.”

A nearby neighbor was a Washington State Patrolman and was home but had his police radio turned on so he could receive calls. He immediately got a radio call on the police network that St. Helens had erupted. He walked over to where we were painting and told us.

The sound of the eruption had bounced off various layers of the atmosphere, and though some people closer to the eruption did not hear the sound, we heard it clearly in Renton.

The Gibson home happened to be in an area with surrounding hills. We walked up the road to a higher elevation where we could clearly see Mount St. Helens, and we watched the eruption from that vantage.

We had planned to return to Vancouver, on Monday, the day after the eruption. When the mountain blew, the hot gases melted the snow and glaciers, causing great flooding of the local rivers, mainly the Toutle River. This flooding temporarily flooded Interstate 5, preventing us from driving home to Vancouver. We stayed in Renton for a few days, closely watching the plumes from the mountain.

One of our favorite places to visit and camp had been Spirit Lake at the foot of Mount St. Helens. When we camped there, we would rent a boat from Harry Truman, who was killed in the eruption.

Howard and Rose Grafton of Portland, had a cabin at Swift Creek on the south side of Mount St. Helens. They kept trying to call us about the eruption and — not knowing we had gone to Renton for the weekend and fearing we might have been among the people killed in the eruption — were about to notify authorities that we were among the missing. Before making that call, they decided to call the Gibsons in Renton and they found us safe.

By the way, about two weeks before Mount St. Helens erupted, Dolores and I hosted Reid and Faye Blackburn for dinner at our home. Reid was freelancing for National Geographic and was killed in the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Reid was a photographer, and I was a typesetter and ad designer for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver.

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