Special Reports

2000: '20 years later, it's still fresh'

Twenty years ago, Harold Kolb was a Washington National Guard helicopter pilot training in Yakima when what he thought were black storm clouds rolled over the Cascade Mountains.

Although lightning shot from the clouds, it soon was apparent that this was no thunderstorm. It was 2.4 billion cubic yards of ash disgorged from Mount St. Helens during a cataclysmic eruption that sent Kolb and his fellow pilots scrambling to the rescue.

Over the next several days, Kolb flew the barren blast zone in search of survivors and the bodies of those who didn't make it.

On Thursday, exactly 20 years later, he returned to Mount St. Helens with some 400 others to commemorate the anniversary of the eruption.

A host of government and community leaders attended the ceremony at Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center near the volcano. In a grove of Douglas firs and aspen, they dedicated a memorial listing the names of 57 people who died in the eruption.

"Twenty years later, it's still fresh," said Sheryl Bales as she wiped away tears at the memorial. Her sister, Karen Varner, and her fiancZ, Terry Crall, died while camping on the Green River when Mount St. Helens exploded.

"I wanted to be here," Bales said. The ceremony "was in their memory."

Kolb's first encounter with the devastation of Mount St. Helens was from the air. When the explosion spewed ash 16 miles in the air and over the mountains, he and his fellow guardsmen scrambled to get their helicopters flying before the ash could ground them.

The National Guard dedicated 30 helicopters to the search for survivors. Kolb piloted one over the bleak moonscape of ruin the explosion had left.

"It was kind of terrifying," he said. "It was like being on a different planet."

Kolb helped rescue three people - two men and a young boy - from the blast zone that first day. Later, he transported the bodies of six people killed in the blast.

"The hardest part was pulling out the people who didn't survive," Kolb said.

Somber reflection was just one facet of Thursday's ceremony. State Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison spoke of the gains in scientific knowledge and the redevelopment effort that followed the disaster.

And when he remembered the dead, he spoke of the future, rather than the past.

"It's appropriate, as we memorialize the lives lost, that we plant trees," said Morrison, a congressman when Mount St. Helens erupted. "In 20 years, I'd like to be around to see how high these grow."

Filmmaker Michael Lienau, who nearly perished while filming the aftermath of the eruption, called survivors "the real heroes" of Mount St. Helens. "There's so many tremendous stories," he said.

The ceremony drew more than the usual media attention, with morning radio disc jockeys chatting up passers-by and television network helicopters noisily interrupting. But as the crowd ventured to the memorial grove, distraction gave way to solemnity.

The grove overlooks the Toutle River, which 20 years ago ran wide and deep with mud and debris. On Thursday, it was a shiny narrow ribbon running away from Mount St. Helens.

The volcano itself remained silent throughout the ceremony.

"Mount St. Helens was doing what it was supposed to do," Lienau said. "We just got in the way."

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* Reach staff writer David Wickert at 253-274-7341 or david.wickert@mail.tribnet.com.

Originally published on May 19, 2000.