For days, the helicopters had criss-crossed the monochrome netherworld that once was Meta Lake, searching for traces of the cabin where three persons were believed to be staying when Mount St. Helens exploded.

Even though their helicopters hovered only a few feet above the wasteland, the airborne searchers found nothing. Then they called in Hauser, a long-haired German shepherd, and he did what no human could do .

Sniffing through 6 to 12 inches of volcanic ash, Hauser found not only the shattered remnants of the cabin, but also the three bodies.

"He's more valuable than all of us put together," said Deputy Sheriff Brian Hill, referring to the helicopters and squads of men who had searched in vain for the trio.

The 2 1/2-year-old, 100 pound dog, trained from puppyhood by Hill -- at the deputy's own expense -- has become a key element in the difficult search for victims of the uprecedented volanic blast. One week after the mountain's explosion, 23 bodies had been located but more than 70 other persons still were missing, and hopes were fading that any survivors would be found in the 150 square miles of parkland and timber destroyed by the greatest natural explosion in America's recorded history.

The saga of frustration which preceded Hauser's successful location of the bodies illustrates the problems involved in the search.

On Friday, the dog, his handler and a half dozen other searchers hiked to a campsite where three other persons had died. Two bodies had been found earlier beneath toppled trees and heavy ash deposits, but the third had not been located, and Hill sent Hauer on a random search of the region.

Before long, the dog stopped and buried his nose in the powdery ash Hill began digging at that site. First he found a beer can. Then, as he plunged his hands deeper, he felt "flesh and bones," he recounted later.

Hill summoned others in the rescue party, and they began systematically excavating the area. The flesh and bones turned out to be a chicken. Deeper beneath the ash, the searchers also found a tent and a sleeping bag, but no trace of the missing camper.

The mission, however, proved that Hauser and similarly trained dogs could locate items buried in the ash. So, on Saturday, the Lewis County sheriff's office sent the search team and dog back into the devastated region. After hours of searching, the team concentrated on finding the site of the cabin where they believed three persons were staying. Before long, Hauser stopped sniffing and signaled Hill that he had located something.

Digging through the ash, the men uncovered two bodies, lying side byside beneath a pile of debris, Hill said. The search continued and Hauser pinpointed the third body.