2005: Most of volcano's victims were in supposed safe areas

Only three victims in 1980 were known to have died in the prohibited 'red zone.' Families say the state should have been more cautious.

May 12, 2010 

MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT - The four bodies were found inside the family's car, their lungs filled with ash.

When rescue workers finally reached them, they also found a cassette tape, recorded by Ron and Barbara Seibold's children on their way to the volcano.

"They were goofing around - asking whether or not they would see lava coming out of the mountain," said Jim Thomas, a top state emergency management official in 1980. "One asked if it was dangerous, and both parents cheerfully reassured their kids that they'd be safe."

But they weren't.

The four members of the Seibold family - the mother, father and two children, ages 7 and 9, died when Mount St. Helens erupted with the force of a hydrogen bomb.

Of the 57 people who died on the mountain on May 18, 1980, only three are known to have been killed within the "red zone," the area cordoned off by officials in the weeks leading up to the eruption.

Another three - miners carrying permits - died in the adjacent "blue zone," an area closed to the public but open to permit-carrying workers.

'a safe place?'

Like the Seibolds, the majority of the volcano's victims were caught in the avalanche of boiling mud and ash in sections of the mountain considered safe for camping and recreation.

Most died of suffocation from ash that filled their throats, noses and lungs.

When Donna Parker finally made it to the site of her brother's death, she found that even the eggs inside his cooler had been hard-boiled by the heat.

Yet the bluff where William Parker, 46, and his wife Jean, 56, were camping that morning was nearly three miles outside both the red and blue zones.

"And this was supposed to be a safe place?" she asked. "The state owes us an apology," said Parker, 66, who lives in Canby, Ore.

Washington state officials say the blast was unprecedented and that there was no way for them to have foreseen the scale of the disaster, which ripped trees out of the ground 17 miles from the crater and devastated an area spanning 230 square miles.

Within hours, the volcanic plume blocked the sun over much of Eastern Washington. Ash fell like snow as far away as Montana.

On TV the day after the eruption, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray said that most of those who died were people who ignored official warnings and deliberately went into harm's way.

When President Carter arrived in Portland on his way to visit the disaster site, he made a similar comment: "One of the reasons for the loss of life that has occurred is that tourists and other interested people, curious people, refused to comply with the directives issued by the governor," he said.

"They slipped around highway barricades and into the dangerous area when it was well-known to be very dangerous."

Bob Landon, former chief of the Washington State Patrol, said that in the weeks leading up to the eruption, tourists were routinely trying to get by roadblocks erected by the state.

But when the bodies were finally recovered, it became clear that only a handful had died within the off-limits area, he said.

not the victims' fault

Twenty-five years later, relatives of the dead still feel the need to stress that their loved ones did not die because of their own recklessness.

"My mother would never ever, ever, ever, ever have killed her own daughter," said Roxann Edwards, of Scio, Ore., who was 18 when her mother and sister set off for a day trip to the mountain.

Rescue workers eventually found Jolene Edwards, 19, and Arlene Edwards, 37, lying a football field apart in the branches of separate hemlock trees, about four miles outside the red and blue zones.

Across several ridges, newlyweds Christy and John Killian had been fishing that morning.

Christy, 20, of Vader, Lewis County, later was identified through her left hand, which was found still clutching the couple's dead poodle.

John, 29, was never found. For years, his mother and father continued to look for him.

Former state patrol chief Landon said the restricted areas were drawn up based on the advice of scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Richard Waitt, a geologist at the agency's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., said the possibility of a far larger eruption had been discussed. But it stayed among scientists.

"We all have blood on our hands, if you want to look at it that way," said Waitt, one of a handful of young scientists in 1980 who tried to warn his superiors that the blast area could be far larger than originally thought.

He noted, however, that even had scientists predicted the true scope of the catastrophe, it's unlikely the state could have restricted access, because much of the blast site was on private property.

The red zone was almost entirely within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It ended where the landholdings of timber company Weyerhaeuser Co. began.

That detail became the basis for a lawsuit brought by the families of the victims, who alleged that the restricted areas were based on property lines, not science.

The case against the state was dismissed in 1985, after the court ruled that state officials did not know how destructive the eruption of the volcano was going to be.

Families of some victims sued Weyerhaeuser, settling for a reported $225,000 - an amount that many said was a pittance.

"No one brings their kids to a place they consider unsafe," said Donna Parker, repeating one of the arguments frequently evoked by the families of the dead.

Hours before they suffocated in their car under a blanket of ash, Ron and Barbara Seibold had been talking into a tape recorder, answering questions posed by the bubbly children: Would they see the volcano erupt?

The father, playing along, said he hoped they would, said emergency worker Jim Thomas, who was present when the tape was first played for Barbara Seibold's family.

"We were all struck by what we were hearing, the irony of the parents' reassurances," he wrote in an essay about the experience. "The mother's sister began to sob, quietly at first, and then her sobs became a long, low moan of sadness."

Originally published on May 18, 2005.

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