Suddenly the sun was gone; the blue sky disappeared behind a rip tide of boiling gray clouds. Heat lightning danced in jagged bolts from cloud to cloud overhead, trees swayed and the ground shook.

The daylight turned to darkness so quickly, Jess Baker of Battle Ground, Wash., said, "The birds just went to sleep."

"God, it was quiet out there," said Bob Harju of Vancouver.

Bob Brotmiller looked up at the rolling gray clouds churning out of Mount St. Helens and thought it looked like an atomic explosion. The time was 8:29 Sunday morning. To the north, the explosion was heard 250 miles away, but where the three men stood, just six miles from the crater, there was no sound.

Kathy Anderson and John Morris, directing a U.S. Forest Service tree planting crew four miles below the summit, described a cloud of volcanic ash and boiled out of the crater so rapidly it turned day into night in seconds.

Moments later, the group looked up, Anderson said, and Mount St. Helen's top was gone. "The whole crater was two miles across and flat," she said. In a matter of minutes, Mount St. Helens lost almost 1,300 feet of an elevation that once reached 9,677 feet.

It was almost a full day later before the Forest Service crews, planting trees on the side of an active volcano, found out just how lucky they were. They stood on the south side. On the north side the explosive blast roared 15 miles down the mountain, something like the fire storm from an atomic bomb, killing at least five people and flattening forests.

In the little southside town of Cougar, 12 miles from the summit, Linda Belmire ran out of the store her parents run and looked up as the mountain erupted.

"It was like one of those biblical epics," Belmire said. "You felt overwhelmed. You felt like falling down on your knees and covering your face. oIt was like those stories Cecil B. de Mille put on the screen."

Baker of Battle Ground looked at the boiling clouds and thought instantly of lodge owner Harry Truman, who had become a national folk figure because he decided to stay at his Spirit Lake outpost on the other side of the mountain. Baker looked at the hot ash and debris hurtling down the mountain and thought, "Harry Truman is under that. Would you like to be there?"

At midday Sunday Baker and his crew rumbled in their van down into Cougar. By this time the Cowlitz County sheriffs were evaculating Cougar but Baker and his crew agreed to take two reporters back up the ridge roads for a front-line tour of the maverick mountain.

From the high mountain logging roads five miles from the crater, the scene was a grotesque painting out of a twilight zone battlefield. Lightning forks still shot across the sky.

The valleys were smothered in an ugly gray mist of volcanic ash. From the ridges at the base to the top of the belching mountain, where the forest had been clearcut by loggers, gnarled stumps jutted bleakly out of the gaslike fog.

By this time it had been learned that five persons were dead at a point considerably farther from the crater. Twenty-nine others were missing.

"They should have listened to Dixy," Vancouver resident Harju said of Washington state Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a scientist and former head of the Atomic Energy Commission.

"There's not much I'd listen to Dixy about, but when it comes to volcanoes, I'd lisen to Dixy."

Along the road around the flank of the mountain toward the little timber village of Eagle's Cliff, the bridge had been washed out by a 30-foot tower of water, mud and uprooted trees.

By Dusk the only business in Eagle's Cliff, Jim's Store, was closed, a sign on the door reading: "Mount St. Helens has blown her top -- May 18."

The mud from the mountain had left a gritty, gray trail a hundred feet on both sides of the road. The river water, usually glacier cold, was tepid.

Two little boys were playing in the broken, mud-encased tree trunks tossed like toothpicks up on the road.

Ther parents, Lee and Marilyn Mattson, stood nearby. They were the only people left in Eagle's Cliff, and like Harry Truman on the other side of the volcano, they were mountain people and they had no intention of leaving. o