Story #34: The enormity of destruction, from the air

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One of Edward Sims’ many aerial photos captures the devastation of the Mount St. Helens eruption. (Edward Sims)
By Edward Sims

The call came in and we responded: The day Mount St. Helens decided to erupt was a sight no one had ever seen before. Nor did anyone expect it to grow and affect the world. Little did I know the lasting effects this mountain 1,140 miles away from me would have on my life.

I was part of the 303rd US Air Force Pararescue Team stationed at March Field in Riverside, California. I was very new at the task of rescue, having graduated school just eight months prior, and even more new to marriage by having just expressed my vows to my wife, Terri, 22 days earlier. Now I was being activated to respond to assist the 304th ARRS, out of Portland, with the enormous rescue operations that the mountain greeted them with the morning of May 18, 1980.

The job I had so recently been trained for was to be part of a small team that would use the best Air Force resources to go into situations to rescue service members or civilians in times of war or peacetime when called. I never expected to have my very first call be when a sleeping giant decided to throw such a large part of itself in all directions, touching so many lives at one time.

It meant grabbing all my gear (because I really did not have a clue as to what would be needed), teaming up with other very experienced team members and jumping into a C-130 to fly north to assist the crews that had started working the hour the mountain erupted in such fury. We arrived within the first 24 hours of the initial eruption and joined the crews already there to continue flights in the Huey helicopters, flying from the base located at the Portland airport.

Now, 40 years since those fateful days, many memories still remain clear. Just the enormity of the continued destruction that I witnessed while we flew our missions remains clear. Most of the rescues of live persons caught in the way of the eruption took place the day before our team arrived. Many of our missions involved flying in two-helicopter flights, with one low to search and one high to watch the still very active mountain. We would land where possible to check vehicles, campsites or anything that needed another look. Unfortunately, much of what I remember is where we marked the areas for future recovery of the victims who did not survive.

It was amazing to me that anyone or anything would survive the will of the mountain, but many did. At times, we were used to search areas where people had entered the area after the eruptions and become stuck or lost and now drew resources away from the event to assist them. That was the frustrating part of our job, but not unexpected.

Landing the helicopters was a very dangerous and challenging process for the entire crew, especially for the pilots. As we would approach a hover, the ash was so fine and light it would begin to swirl around and within a matter of seconds we would be surrounded in a brownout, unable to see. This resulted in one helicopter being damaged in a hard landing.

We would make running landings, trying to keep the ash blowing up behind us until the struts were on the ground. This happened time and time again as areas were checked. With everything a dark grey, anything manmade visually stood out as we scanned for survivors. When things needing further inspection were found but landing was not possible, we marked them with a parachute streamer because the colors of the streamers stood out against the background color.

It was truly amazing to me how powerful and vivid the event was as we flew down rivers and saw all the logging equipment, logs and buildings pushed without effort downstream. The large equipment looked like Tonka Toys accidentally stepped on or run over, even though if we were to stand next to it, this equipment would dwarf us. In some areas, the landscape reminded me of pictures I had seen of the moon, only it was created by the car-sized chunks of ice blown from or floated away from the mountain, which later melted and formed what appeared to be craters. We also saw herds of animals just walking in circles because they could not see the sun through the ash clouds to get their bearings, so they just continued walking in circles.

Little did I know how this experience would touch my life until I was able to recount the events to my father. My dad was born and raised in the Longview-Kelso area and had attended the Boy Scout Camp at Spirit Lake as a child.

It has taken 39 years for me to revisit the area with my wife and share with her my experiences of those days. She has been a part of my experiences from those early days in our marriage, aware of how important my involvement in that particular mission imprinted on my career in the military. When it became time for me to retire after 20 years, my only request was to receive a copy of a picture of pre-eruption Mount St. Helens that hung on the wall at our base. I cherish it.

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