2005: Five stories unfold under an ashen sky

May 12, 2010 

They careened down winding mountain roads at breakneck speed ahead of a deadly volcanic surge. They cowered in hunting shacks as lightning-laced ash clouds blackened the midmorning sky.

They prayed to God to save them. They risked their lives to save others.

Eyewitnesses to the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens and its aftermath - a group that included curious college students from Seattle and Pullman, a veteran Puyallup pilot and a ranch wife from the desert hinterlands of Central Washington - now share a bond of survival, forged on a day when the volcano exploded and killed 57.

In the days before today's 25th anniversary of the eruption, they shared their stories from that warm Sunday morning - tales of awe, confusion, drama and, ultimately, survival.

"Our world changed that day," said Nancy Lenihan, who thought the world was ending when ash blotted out the sky above her home - nearly 120 miles away. "We didn't know if we would live or die."

Trixie Anders: Side trip spares lives

Trixie Anders was mad.

Delayed by her then-husband's desire for breakfast, Anders was still at the Highway 504 cutoff near the town of Toutle, Cowlitz County, when the mountain blew its top at 8:32 a.m.

Her friend and fellow Washington State University geology student, Jim Fitzgerald, had gone on ahead, presumably more hungry for a look at the rumbling mountain than for scrambled eggs. He was on Spud Mountain, miles closer to the volcano when it let loose its cataclysmic blast.

Anders, now of Wheat Ridge, Colo., questioned her decision to marry Barry Johnston as she stepped out of her CJ-7 Jeep that morning to begin snapping photos of the developing eruption.

"My initial reaction, by the time I took my first picture, was, 'Oh, no, Jim's up there getting great pictures, and we're down here because you had to have breakfast,' " Anders said at a recent gathering of eruption survivors at Mount St. Helens.

That delay saved her life. Fitzgerald snapped 14 frames before the pyroclastic surge from the eruption blew over him at 500 mph. His film survived, but he did not.

"There was nothing he could do," Anders said.

She quickly realized that she, her husband and a couple of other folks gathered on the road to take pictures were in trouble, and they beat a hasty retreat down 504.

"We're in a Jeep and we're driving it so fast, I'm sure we're going to flip it because we went around two corners on two tires," she said. "I'm hanging out the back taking pictures, and I said, 'OK, if we don't flip the Jeep, the mud's going to get us or the surge is going to get us.' I truly did not believe we were going to live."

They did. The billowing surge hit a ridge and went shooting into the sky above them.

Anders said she was struck most by the silence. Because of quirks of geography, the sound of the blast never reached her.

"It's almost like your brain can't realize what's happening because you can't hear anything," she said. "It really looked like an atomic bomb going off, a silent atomic bomb."

Mike Moore: family finds makeshift shelter

Hoping to get a view of the eruption, Mike Moore of Longview, Cowlitz County, and his family wanted to camp close to the mountain - but not too close.

So they picked a spot on the Green River - three valleys and 13 miles northwest of the volcano.

That was still too close.

The family - Mike; his wife, Lu; and their daughters, Bonnie, 4, and Terra, 3 months - found themselves in the path of a choking pumice cloud belched from the volcano.

"We didn't hear an explosion, but we heard a loud rumbling, like an aircraft way up high, but one that is in trouble," Moore recalled. "Almost immediately after that, the air began to compress around our bodies, squeezing us, like you were coming off the high pass at 1,000 miles an hour."

Moore grabbed his camera and started taking photos until the cloud grew until it filled his viewfinder.

"At this point, I'm beginning to put two and two together," he said. "It's coming toward us."

He then looked skyward and saw roiling black clouds of ash racing overhead. He yelled at his wife to get everything into a nearby hunter's shack.

"I don't think the tent's going to handle this," Moore said. "About this point, I'm thinking I'm not going to handle this."

The family crammed into the shack as the ash cloud enveloped the area, blowing down trees and sparking a lightning storm.

"Light dropped to zero," Moore said. "You can't tell if you have your eyes opened or closed."

He and his wife wrapped the 3-month-old in blankets to try to keep the ash out of her lungs.

"The rest of us got out our socks, our extra socks, and got them wet and breathed through them," he said.

When the cloud passed, the family emerged to a black-and-white world where everything was coated in 6 inches of ash.

They packed the baby into Moore's backpack and spent most of the day trying to make it the two miles to their car. But they were foiled by trees blown over in the blast and decided to spend the night in the woods. They were rescued by helicopter the next day.

Jess Hagerman: Vopter pilot navigates tricky rescue

National Guard pilot Jess Hagerman spent the day flying the Toutle and Green river valleys, looking for survivors.

The flying conditions were unlike any the Puyallup resident had ever experienced.

"The sky, the ground, everything was the same color, basically," he said. "It was all one shade of gray."

At one point, about 14 miles from St. Helens, Hagerman spotted tracks in the ash. He followed them until he found two men on a road along the Toutle River. They were part of a logging crew caught in the surge.

One was on his feet and was asking for pain medication, Hagerman said.

"He's 14 miles from the mountain, and he has these big welts on his face," Hagerman said. "His hands are black. I learned later that was because his gloves had fused to his hands."

Hagerman flew the men to safety. The man with the welts survived. His co-worker later died of his burns.

That evening, Hagerman landed his copter on a bridge in the forest for the night.

"It was absolutely stone-cold quiet - so quiet it was scary," he said.

The next day, Hagerman was on patrol when he spotted the Moore family along the Green River. He and his crewman, Randy Fantz, maneuvered in for a rescue that included Hagerman hovering the helicopter with one skid on a log while Fantz jumped out to help the family aboard.

Things were going well until Mike Moore tried to stuff his pack into the back of the overloaded helicopter, Hagerman said.

"We've got a full load without anything else, so I said, 'Leave the pack here, we're loaded.' They said, 'Well, there's a baby in there.' And I said, 'Well, throw it aboard.' "

Then Hagerman began the frightening climb through the narrow valley, still choked with ash. He said he didn't know up from down: "I had vertigo so bad."

Relying on his instruments, Hagerman piloted the helicopter up through the ash cloud into open sky.

"Finally, we did break out about 7,500 feet," he said. "I was pretty tickled."

Keith Ronnholm: Fascinated student makes his escape

Keith Ronnholm hustled back from spring break in California when he heard St. Helens was threatening to erupt.

A student of geophysics at the University of Washington, Ronnholm bluffed his way past the roadblocks restricting traffic into the area and made his way to Bear Meadow, northeast of the mountain.

He was planning to write "saw a volcano" on his life's list of accomplishments.

"If I had had the geologic knowledge then that I have now, I wouldn't have gone where I went," he said recently.

Ronnholm rose early that morning to take a glimpse of the volcano but saw no steam or ash, so he went back to sleep in the back of his pickup. He woke again a few hours later and was puttering around camp when he heard someone yelling.

"When I glanced up, what I saw was the entire north face of the mountain sliding down," he said. "I shook my head. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

Like many within sight of St. Helens that day, he grabbed his camera and started shooting.

"At first, I wasn't at all apprehensive," recalled Ronnholm, who still calls Seattle home. "This was all happening off silently in the distance. But as the cloud began to grow and to expand, I started to think about maybe finding my pants and finding my car keys and thinking about getting ready to get out of there."

He began packing his truck but had a hard time not watching the mountain.

"It's very hard to take your eyes off this phenomenon. It's a fascinating event," Ronnholm said.

But when the pyroclastic surge broke over a nearby ridge "like a wave would break over a breakwater," it was time to go, he said.

Ronnholm sped out of Bear Meadow and made his way several miles down a Forest Service road before he thought he was safe. Hearing crashes in the brush, he stepped out to take a look, thinking it might be animals fleeing the blast.

"I very quickly realized it was the sounds of rocks falling through the trees," Ronnholm said. "I backpedaled to the car with my hands over my head. As I started driving away, there were rocks bouncing off the hood and off the windshield."

Then the mud came raining down, thick and viscous, and Ronnholm used his snow scraper to keep the windshield clear.

At some point, he was overtaken by a logging truck, which he followed into the town of Randle, onto Highway 12 and beyond.

"I just kept going," he said.

Nancy Lenihan: Devastation unites rural community

Sumner resident Nancy Lenihan thought the world was ending.

At the time of the eruption, she was living on an isolated ranch with her now ex-husband and their young sons in Central Washington, between Royal City, Grant County, and Vantage, Kittitas County.

Radio and television reception was spotty in the area, so word of the impending disaster was slow to reach her family, she said in an e-mail to The News Tribune.

"So, on the warm, muggy, morning of May 18 around 8:30 a.m., we heard the boom and the ground shook," Lenihan said. "My boys, aged 3 and 7, asked what it was, and I replied that it was the bombing at the Yakima Firing Range since we felt the activity from there often.

"We then went to church, noticing that the 100-plus mother cows were restless and walking the 100-acre fenced pasture."

During the service, dark clouds began to blot out the sky, and the cows began to bellow. When the family returned home, Lenihan's husband saddled his horse and rode out to let the cows loose in the surrounding desert.

Radio reports said the mountain had blown, but there was little other news.

"Then the lightning began," Lenihan said. "The smell of sulfur was awful.

"The radio said to get our animals into barns and covered areas. Where do you put all of those horses and cows? The ash was falling heavily. Phone lines didn't work because of the volume of phone calls the networks were experiencing. We had no TV. We felt so alone."

Lenihan put her boys down for their naps and prayed. About 6 p.m., the sky began to lighten.

"Slowly, we got a glimpse of our ashened world. It was several inches thick of gray ash," she said. "My husband had found his way back to the house. Our world looked like cement had been dumped from the heavens. No cars on the highway, no birds, no sounds period. It was an eerie quiet."

The ash destroyed the hay crop and farm machinery. Rattlesnakes came into the house looking for water. Lenihan made her sons wear paper particle masks. She wore a shower cap to keep the ash out of her hair.

Neighbors eventually banded together to clean up the mess and get on with life, she said.

"The neighbors had many barbecues together that summer and would watch magnificent sunsets that the ash created in every evening sky," Lenihan said. "We shared our experiences, our losses and our hopes for a better future."

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News Tribune staff writers Adam Lynn, Andre Cherry and Craig Hill contributed to this report. Information from The News Tribune Readers Network also was included.

Originally published on May 18, 2005.

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