On the quiet, sunny morning of May 18, Charles McNerney, John Smart, and several other people had found their way to an overlook to watch Mount St. Helens, just in case it erupted. They had a good view of the volcano from a cleared area along the North Toutle River near Castle Lake, 13 kilometers (see appendix 2) west of the volcano. At 8:32 A.M., the volcano watchers got their wish. It was much deadlier than they could have dreamed, for the north side of the volcano collapsed. Then came the blast. A black cloud came directly from the summit and within seconds climbed over a ridge toward them. A warm wind began blowing ahead of the cloud and increased until trees bent over and branches broke; the approaching blast must have pushed air in front of it. The events of the first two minutes after the eruption were warning enough for McNerney and Smart to leave. The other people may have decided to leave a minute or two later, but it would have been too late because even McNerney and Smart barely escaped with their lives. They drove as fast as they could (up to 125 kilometers per hour on straight stretches) down a dirt road toward Highway 504 but the cloud was gaining on them. They felt the radiant heat of the cloud carried by the wind that blew into the car through the open sunroof. It felt like the car's heater was on. After reaching the paved Highway 154, they accelerated to 140 kilometers per hour on some stretches and finally began to outdistance the cloud. When they lost sight of it, they stopped in relief, hoping that it, too, had stopped; but it soon reappeared, moving at about 72 kilometers per hour. The base of the cloud looked to them like an avalanche of black chalk dust. First, one part of the cloud shot out in front, then another, then another, like waves lapping onto a beach. What they were seeing was the turbulent front of a deadly pyroclastic flow. After pulling back onto the highway, they finally outran the cloud, at an average speed of 105 kilometers per hour.
« Older An excellent WashPost primer on the lies each cand... | Eat 'em if you got 'em:... Newer »
This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments
Buy a Shirt