Early last Sunday morning, as the first glimmer of sun worked in through the deep fir forest around Miner's Creek, Buzz Smith stretched out with a peaceful feeling in the pit of his stomach. His boys liked the woods as much as he did. That was fitting, for a logger's boys. Eric was 10 and Adam was only 7, but they had hiked a good four miles Saturday afternoon, slept soundly and ate all the bacon and eggs and pancakes Smith could turn out over their little campfire.
Now the boys knelt by the creek, washing pans.
The air was cool, damp with dew. Smith could smell bark and smoke.
It was so quiet he could hear himself breathe.
Then the first sound came -- crack. Smith looked up. Again he heard it. Crack. Crack. Three bangs, sharp, in the distance.
"What was that?" Adam asked.
Something stirred inside Smith's gut.
"Must have been somebody shooting a rifle back down the river somewhere," said Smith.
He looked at both his boys.
He did not think it was a rifle.
He was 31, married, the father of three, the owner -- finally -- of a small house he had built himself on the banks of the Toutle River. He knew that country as well as he knew any place on earth. For seven weeks now, he had watched the smoldering, the steam and ash, the excitement of all the out-of-towners -- but nothing much had happened. The trees were still standing, weren't they?
And for an instant, while he still had time to hesitate, Buzz Smith thought to himself: I wonder if it was that damn mountain.
There were two kinds of people near the slopes of Mount St. Helens in the hours before 8:37 last Sunday morning.
There were people like Smith -- hikers, sightseers, working loggers -- who would not grasp the danger, simply could not imagine what violence lay boiling in the core of a mountain they thought they knew.
And there were people like U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist David A. Johnston, who knew exactly what might happen, who understood that he was witnessing creation of the surface of the earth, and could not possibly stay away. Thirty years old, just out of graduate school, lanky and friendly, stricken with shyness before large academic audiences, Johnston had narrowly missed death several times while researching his doctoral thesis on the slopes of an erupting volcano in southern Alaska.
He had warned reporters about Mount St. Helens. "This is like standing next to a dynamite keg with the fuse lit, but you don't know how long the fuse is," he had said.
But his research gripped him totally. Active volcanoes fascinated Johnston, and in the weeks since its first ashy rumbling on March 27, Mount St. Helens had become the most carefully studied, the most precisely measured erupting volcano in the history of geological research. Johnston was examining gas content from the crater, testing to see if changes in the gases might help predict eruptions; he also manned a set of lasers that recorded in great detail the ominous north flank bulge that swelled a little every day.
Just after 8:37 Sunday morning, the last recorded words of David Johnston reached a radio transmitter station near the base of Mount St. Helens, a relay point to the Geological Survey's command post in Vancouver.
"Vancouver!" Johnston shouted. "Vancouver! This is it!"
Somewhere in the depths of Mount St. Helens, where the pressure of molten rock and gases had been building and building, scientists speculate that an earthquake ripped open the vast chunk of rock that was capping the boiling volcano.
The magma shot out -- hot, ashy, reeking of sulphur gases. It shot sideways. It spewed a black boiling cloud as big as the sky. It blew out the entire north side of the mountain, and billowed, and grew, and blocked out the sun, and blew through the top of the mountain, and lifted straight up and out until the dark column of smoke was six times the height of the mountain that let it go.
At Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Angeles, where from a distance of 250 miles the entire congregation had heard the great deep booms, the pastor asked for a moment of silent prayer.
In Toledo, Wash., 70 miles up the interstate from Vancouver, David Filla got a telephone call from his mother-in-law in Toutle. "My God," she cried. "One side of the mountain has given way. They say there's a huge wall of mud coming down the river." Filla ran outside and saw the sky turn dark, saw the gray cloud roll. Filla thought of the pictures he had seen of Hiroshima. It was oddly warm out, he thought. And it was very quiet.
Then the wind came down and blew as though the world was ending.
Buzz Smith felt the shock wave smack at his chest, as though someone had shoved him. A tremendous roar thundered down through the darkening woods. A cedar tree 10 feet away began swaying; Smith grabbed at a shoulder and yanked Adam behind him just as the tree crashed to earth.
Smith was shaking. All around the woods, not a single tree was left standing.
As far as he could see, on land that had been thick forest seconds before, firs and cedars lay along the hillside like toothpicks spilled from a box.
"Dad," Adam said, in a voice so clear that for an instant it struck Smith as funny, "I've never seen a tree fall down by itself."
Holding both boys close, Smith felt ash start to fall from the grayness overhead, hard and then harder, pellets the size of golf balls. Smith grabbed all the sleeping bags. He told the boys to zip them together. The three squirmed under the linked bags, and within 15 seconds the hillside around them had disappeared into a darkness so thick that Smith's flashlight made a weak shining sphere hardly bright enough to illuminate his hand.
The ash poured out from deep within a crater that had suddenly been opened to the sky. Like a knife lopping off the top of a soft-boiled egg, the blast had blown away the rounded peak of Mount St. Helens. Hot rivers of fragmented rock and gases boiled over the raw new lips of the crater. Ash rained heavily into suddenly loosened rocks and melted snow, making thick gray mud; the mud pushed down through the Toutle River Valley, through houses, trucks and huge trees, and smashed as it came.
Up and down the Toutle, along every clearing where a family had placed a home, the emergency sirens waited. "IMMEDIATE DANGER OF FLOOD!" shouted police through the loudspeakers of their moving cars. "This area is considered to be dangerous! please evacuate now.immediate DANGER OF FLOOD!" A man drove up to his double-wide trailer home just in time to see the river pick it up and shove it wildly down the road. David Filla's great-grandmother announced that she was not going to move; her children lifted her into a wheelbarrow and pulled her up a fire road to safety on the high ground.
Reid Blackburn, 27, a photographer for the Vancouver Columbian, disappeared in the ash. Working temporarily for National Geographic from a campsite on the mountain, Blackburn was to trigger by radio two remote cameras pointed at the face of Mount St. Helens. A picture by another staffer later showed Blackburn's car, buried to the windows in ash. His body was recovered.
Harry Truman, 84-year-old owner of a lodge that had overlooked Spirit Lake, disappeared in the debris. He had lived on Mount St. Helens for 54 years, courting at the end the reporters and photographers and Forest Service officials who implored him to leave. He was wrinkled and hooknosed and swore a lot, and he missed his wife, who died three years ago and was buried on the mountain.
"They'll never get me off this mountain," Truman said to a man from the Portland Oregonian, in one of his last interviews. "They think the mountain will do old Truman in, and one day he'll come floating down the river all bloated. That's a lot of -------. That's my mountain. I don't know anything about her innards. But I know the outside of that mountain better than any man. That mountain -- beautiful, isn't she? -- won't hurt old Truman."
Truman's lodge, as far as anyone could tell, disappeared with him.
Travelers, couples, whole families died in their cars. They were probably killed by heat, or the force of the explosion. Some may have suffocated in the ash. Elk and deer struggled toward water; they died by the banks of muddy streams, or lay motionless, in shock, covered with ash.
In the steamy gray heat of their makeshift sleeping-bag shelter, Buzz Smith began to pray. "Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name," he whispered. When the heat was too much, he would lift away the sleeping bags, letting ashy air in; later Smith realized that minimal air circulation was the only thing that kept them from smothering.
"It sounded like the world was just blowing up around us," Smith said. Lightning shot around them and the roaring would not let up. For nearly an hour, they lay under the sleeping bags. Then Smith shone his flashlight again and saw that it would not light the ground.
The trails were gone, but he knew the terrain. If they stayed, they would die.
Slowly, using the dim banks of an ash-filled river as his guide, Smith began leading his boys out through the morning dark.
There were areas of intense heat. Smith would walk a little way ahead, then turn back to shine light for the boys. He set goals. One more mile. Remember where the water comes up out of the ground like soda pop? Let's try to make it there.
In a stream, someone yelled to ask if Smith had any shoes. Smith had tennis shoes in his pack; when the man came to get them, Smith saw that his arms were charred with burns and that he had run from this campsite through the ash without shoes.
The Smiths kept walking. The boys had no saliva. When the thirst was unbearable, they drank from ashy streams. It was like warm coffee grounds.
Sixty thousand feet above them, vast bulges wrinkled like some mammoth living brain, the smoke column over Mount St. Helens billowed and breathed. From the air it was extraordinarily beautiful,, graceful in its slow fat feathering, a deep charcoal gray dusted with pink.
The Columbia River channel filled with mud, ocean-going cargo ships slowed to a halt, thick volcanic ash clogged air filters and stopped patrol cars and jammed municipal sewer systems throughout eastern Washington. The entire city of Spokane, 300 miles east-northeast of Mount St. Helens, went into emergency shutdown. Airports closed, the ash moved east toward Montana, and still the smoke column billowed.Spring chinook salmon and early summer steelhead rolled over dead in the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers; a minor league baseball game was called on account of volcanic ash; $200 million in timber lay bleached and dusty on government forest land. Still the ash came. "I think we can expect to experience explosive activity and ash eruptions," said a USGS geologist in a news conference at a hotel crowded with reporters, "for a period of years."
And as helicopters crisscrossed the air above Mount St. Helens, hauling up people so ashy that sometimes only sudden movement or a sweat-streaked face made them visible in the grayness, somebody spotted Buzz Smith and his two exhausted sons.
At about 8 o'clock Sunday evening, they were airlifted out by National Guard helicopter. They had walked 15 miles.
The Smith home, their clothes, their furniture -- everything they had accumulated for the last 12 years -- disappeared when the swollen mudfilled Toutle rushed down through their house.
"I still got a couple friends that weren't as lucky as me," said Smith. "They haven't found 'em."
Smith's wife and other child escaped unscathed. The family is staying with Smith's brother-in-law, in a house high enough to be safe. The mouth of Spirit Lake is still blocked by a high wall of fractured pumice and ash. It now seems unlikely that the mud dam will collapse all at once, but no one knows.
In Castle Rock, Kelso, and Longview, where the mud or flood waters could push down again, people keep close to the high ground, carry their valuables to friends and relatives in the hills, and wait.
At the Catholic church in Castle Rock, where folded mattresses and a half-tube of Crest lie near the golden bells and candles, 60 peoples spend each night sleeping on cots in the safety of the high church hill.
"You feel kind of helpless," said the volunteer on duty, Rick Manies, "because there is absolutely nothing you can do about it except be a victim . . . you can't plan for anything . . . it's kind of like standing on the platform when they've got the noose around your neck, and they don't know when they're going to pull the thing, and they might let you sit there for a week."
By day, helicopters and foot patrols search for the living and the dead. The death toll yesterday was 18, including volcanologist Johnston; 88 are listed as missing.
"We're a logging community," said Buzz Smith. "I don't think anyone in this area really had any idea of the destruction that the mountain could cause . . . nothing like what happened. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined it."
Now he can.
"From now on you can bet that through our house, Mount St. Helen's will definitely be respected," said Smith.
He does not consider himself an especially religious man. But when the sky turned black around Buzz Smith he felt for his sons and brought them close. "When I looked around for that instant, and I'm sure the boys felt it too," he said, "you realize what a small part of the whole plan you are."