Five Years Later, Nature and Man Rise Phoenix-Like from the Ashes of Mount St. Helens

updated 05/20/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/20/1985 01:00AM

The fireweed is coming back, tufts of purple pushing through the ash. Delicate lilies sway on rubble-strewn hillsides; bear grass and thimbleberries have taken root next to small azure pools that punctuate the wasteland. The herds of elk have returned; cougars and bear have been spotted as well. The mountain has changed in the five years since it came so violently to life, changed since a stunned President Jimmy Carter, surveying what was left, said, "The moon looks like a golf course compared to what's up there."

Five years ago this week, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens, a 9,700-foot peak in Washington's Cascade Range, erupted for the first time in 123 years. An earthquake triggered the collapse of the mountain's north face, releasing pent-up steam and gas that literally blew St. Helens' top. The blast leveled whole forests in an instant. Tons of rubble roared down the mountain at 150 miles an hour and ash shot 13 miles into the sky, choking nearby Spirit Lake. The Toutle and Cowlitz rivers—once home to steelhead trout and salmon—were flung from their beds, destroying dozens of houses miles from the volcano. By day's end Mount St. Helens had killed at least 36 people; the bodies of 21 others were never recovered.

Now, like the wildlife that is beginning to creep back, the people who lived through St. Helens' blast are slowly finding a new foothold near their mountain. Although most insurance companies did not pay for the volcano's mud and flood damage, many whose homes were destroyed have rebuilt close by the two rivers. Ironically, a number of those uprooted by the eruption ended up working at jobs created by it, installing community warning systems and helping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dig an 8,500-foot tunnel to drain Spirit Lake and thus avoid new flooding. A few people are even permitted to make their lives in the Red Zone, the area of greatest damage, which is still off-limits to the general public.

There have been 18 minor eruptions since 1980, but scientists believe that the chance of another major explosion at St. Helens in the near future is low. PEOPLE'S Maria Wilhelm recently paid a visit to the families who make their homes there now, and on the pages that follow some of the survivors talk about the horror of that day five years ago and the changes it wrought in their lives.

Buzz Smith: a tortuous hike through "hell on earth"

The man had joined Buzz Smith and his boys in the late afternoon, and Smith, who had been leading the way through a landscape of unimaginable horrors, was glad for the company. Together, they had dug beneath the omnipresent ash and found a spring with clean water. But now Smith watched in horror. As the man drank, tiny black droplets were forming on his arms and neck. "He was burned so badly," says Buzz, "that the water was coming through his skin."

Smith and his boys (Eric was then 10, Adam 7) were the closest people to the explosion and yet managed to survive it. They had just finished a loggers' breakfast at their campsite in the deep woods eight miles from Mount St. Helens, when Buzz, a former Marine and expert woodsman, heard what he took to be three rifle shots in the distance. "I couldn't imagine who was in front of us and what they were shooting at," he now says.

The sound was not a rifle. It was St. Helens erupting. Within a minute pumice stones the size of golf balls began raining from the sky. Smith heard another sound, which he describes as "a low-flying jet coming in on top of us." And then, he remembers, "the land flattened and the trees toppled."

As the three cowered beneath a fallen tree and tried to cover their heads with sleeping bags, the sky darkened. A blanket of cold, wet ash fell on them, followed by another, superheated layer. Then came more thunder, cracking so low that Smith was sure "the ground was going to open up and swallow us." Then silence.

When the ash abated, Smith and his sons set off on their surreal trek. Often unable to see more than four feet in front of them and navigating by compass, the three moved very slowly to avoid inhaling too much ash. The scorched man was not the only abomination they encountered. "I saw deer with their eyes burned out and their fur smoking," says Smith. "Birds were lying on the ground. I kept thinking, 'This has got to be as close to hell on earth as I'll ever see.' " When his boys asked what was happening, he told them to think of it "like a Hardy Boys story, that we're going to make a very difficult journey in very small steps."

Smith, his boys and the burned man (who later recovered) were finally picked up by a rescue helicopter on a logging trail at 7:50 that night. But Smith's troubles were not over. Returning to the place where his house had been, 100 feet from the Toutle River, he and his children discovered nothing but dirty water. "All the things a guy accumulates in 13 years of marriage," says Smith, "had been washed away by the flood."

Now, five years later, Smith and his wife, Marsha, have slowly rebuilt their lives. A former logger ("There's no timber left anymore"), Buzz has opened an auto-parts store in nearby Castle Rock and built a new house 60 feet above the Cowlitz River. Although for months after the eruption neither Eric nor Adam would play outdoors, Buzz feels his family has weathered the testing time. "We were close before," he says, "and we're closer now."

But the experience has changed his thinking. "I don't put as much stock in material things as I used to," he says. "You realize how unimportant and insignificant man is in the course of things. I just figure my number could have been up that day, and God must have put His hand down. Every day I've got is a plus."

The Roggenbacks: back on familiar ground

Brenda Roggenback had grown up in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. And since 1977 she and her husband, Gary, had been renting a two-bedroom cabin on the south fork of the Toutle River not far from her childhood home. "My grandma hauled mail up there in a wagon," says Brenda. "My dad hunted cougar up there. The mountain was just a neat place, part of our lives." And then, on May 18, she "learned what destruction was." When the Toutle leapt its banks, it sent a wall of mud and water slamming into the Roggenback's home. Gary and Brenda, who was then eight months pregnant, escaped with their daughter Maranda, now 7 (their second child, Annie, is now 4). They returned later to find the cabin (pictured at right) five feet deep with muck. "I had a feeling like when somebody dies," says Brenda, 28, "a sick feeling, like life is never going to be normal again."

Five years later, normality is returning to the community. Neighbors have pitched in to rebuild houses lost in the flood. The Roggenbacks, who received no insurance money, now live 600 feet above the river. Last year they returned to their favorite swimming hole and found it eminently swimmable. They noticed that new alder trees were growing on the banks of the river, while green shoots were springing up nearby. "I'm comfortable with the mountain these days," says Gary, 32, a state highway maintenance worker. "Sure, it'll never be the same. But one day I'll go back to camp and fish like I once did."

Mary Dowling: detective work among the dead

Here are some of the things, significant and less so, that Mary Dowling knows about people killed by Mount St. Helens' eruption. Two of the men had plastic kneecaps on both knees. Several women had had mastectomies. A number of locals were carrying large sums of cash (hastily pulled from mattresses, presumably). Another was a suspected murderer. And one couple was in possession of a large quantity of cocaine. "There were a lot of strange people on that mountain that morning," says Dowling.

These are people who now live only in their survivors' memories and in Dowling's files. Her job as planning coordinator and public information officer of the Cowlitz County Department of Emergency Management includes the task of cataloging the missing and dead from May 18. But the 45-year-old claims she doesn't need to refer back to her files; she has all the stories memorized. Mount St. Helens, she says, has become "almost an obsession with me."

Within three days of the eruption, an Army tent was set up at the airport in Toledo, Wash., 40 miles northwest of the mountain, to serve as the disaster's temporary morgue. Dowling was among the emergency workers taking frantic calls and sharing the mood of "anger, shock and surprise." The bodies arrived looking "like they had been microwaved, although most suffocated by ash before they were seared," she says. "There was an urgency to find those who might have survived."

Dowling went to work, starting with a list of more than 200 missing in the area. By now, through what she calls her detective work, the figures have been whittled down to a fairly firm 57 dead or presumed dead. Now she spends most of her time working on the living: updating emergency response plans and providing matter-of-fact advice to residents worried about a new eruption. "The unthinkable happened once," she says. "It can happen again."

Privately, however, she admits to a different feeling, one that someone who has not lived through the disaster might be tempted to call perverse. "I know others say it's ugly and terrible," says Dowling, who lives 55 miles northwest of St. Helens. "But I love to see the colors in the rock. I'd like to move closer to the mountain and just watch it. I think it's beautiful."

Wayne and Mernie George: monitoring the mountain in the Red Zone

"I saw the plants swinging and the crystal shaking," says Mernie George. "I saw a huge cloud heading toward us made up of every shade of color imaginable. It had its own storm and lightning. I fully expected to see the face of Jesus."

At an age when most people are beginning to look for a little security, Mernie seems at first glance to have found hers. She is certainly among loved ones; her two birds, Pepi and Ashley, twitter in their cage. Mitzi the dog and Mork the cat lounge contentedly near her feet, and her husband, Wayne, looks on affectionately.

In reality, the Georges live with the ever-present threat of danger. They and the animals are packed into a tiny trailer in the Red Zone, reachable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles and even then only with permission from the U.S. Forest Service. Their trailer sits on a 400-foot bluff overlooking a wasteland of splintered timber, mounds of mud 100 feet high and the debris-choked Toutle River, making its way slowly into inhabited territory.

Wayne, 48, and Mernie, 64, are the river watchers of Mount St. Helens. The Toutle could easily repeat its devastating flood of 1980 if further volcanic activity melts winter ice too fast or sends new mud slides into its bed. The Georges are employed by Cowlitz County to provide early warning of any rapid rise in the river or any unusual activity on the mountain—a job that puts them in the blast zone of any future eruption. "I'm just a fatalist," says Mernie. "I figure if the mountain is going to blow, it's going to blow. At least, it would be a quick way to go."

On May 18, 1980 the Georges' comfortable two-bedroom house 12 miles west of the mountain was only shaken, not severely damaged. But both were soon deeply involved with the disaster. Mernie worked on the sheriff's information hotline for residents. Wayne ran a search-and-rescue team.

Since December 1982 their lives have merged with the mountain's. Every day they take its pulse with electronic monitoring gear, and employ a massive searchlight for nighttime checks and a contraption of Wayne's own devising: steel fishing line attached to a large log above the Toutle's bank and a siren in their trailer, ready to sound if the log rises suddenly.

It is not a comfortable life. The trailer has no telephone and water must be hauled in from outside the blast zone. And the mountain continues to make its presence felt. In February 1983 a minor eruption hinted at what the end could be like. "Rocks were hitting the trailer so hard we were screaming at each other and couldn't hear," says Mernie. "The ash was so thick outside that the floodlight couldn't penetrate."

Nevertheless, they stay on. Not for the money (Mernie makes $4,800 and Wayne, since a promotion to special deputy sheriff, $18,000), nor even just out of civic-mindedness, although Mernie is proud that "45,000 lives and property depend on the work we do." But there is a chance to witness a rare event. The tender shoots rooted in the rich volcanic ash are mute testimony to nature's ability to restore itself. "Everything is greening up a bit," says Mernie, "and the animals are coming back. I've learned that nature does recover. And people do too."

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