It pours from the lip of the ashy volcano, lifting up fat as a monstrous gray cauliflower. The scientists say it is smoke, ash and steam, but it looks from the air like something much thicker, much slower. the sides bulge pink. The bulges breathe. A slender thread of lightning flashes quick and brilliant, lit off by dust in the afternoon air.
"It looks like an atomic bomb hit it," people keep saying around Mount St. Helens, and from the awesome perspective of a small twin-engine airplane buzzing timidly around the volcano, the descriptions fits.
Down at the base of the mountain a vast swath of land, once green as the forest nearby, stretches bleached and dead under a fine coating of dull silver ash. Trees, open country, river beds, lie coated and gray. And down through the center, spread out so wide that at first it is difficult to imagine what it could be, the narrow Toutle River has turned into a churning field of mud.
The mud pushes down through the trees. You can see it moving, when the plane drops lower. Evacuated houses stand attic-deep in the mud. It shoves through forests, wraps around tree trunks and rips at their roots, bounces giant logs down river as it moves. Below the plane, a fir tree sways and topples to the mud. The mud pulls it in and keeps moving.
There are two people walking, their car stopped on a road that looks washed out; they are either trapped or crazy enough to have driven to the base of the erupting volcano to watch. A whole logging camp lies deserted and still, the land around it ripped by the river of mud.
A radio reporter this afternoon spoke with a shaken official who had just returned from an attempted flight to rescue persons who might be trapped in the forest area closest to this morning's explosion. The official had been forced to turn back, apparently because of smoke and ash. "The entire forest is laying on the ground," he said. "A number of people went up there and were trapped this morning. . . . The forest is literally laying all over the road.