Life in the Red Zone: A close-up view of spectacle, danger

Daphne Kivinen and her family had a Red Zone view when Mount St. Helens erupted

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Living a dozen miles from the volcano, Daphne Kivinen and her family had a Red Zone view 34 years ago when Mount St. Helens blew itself apart.

"We were watching a spectacular eruption," Kivinen said.

Huge ice chunks flew through the air, she recalled. "It made its own electricity, and you could see lightning."

At another vantage point, they could see ripples coming at them across Yale Lake. When those ripples lapped onto the shore, the ground beneath them shook.

"That was the first time I could see an earthquake coming at me," Kivinen said.

It was quite a spectacle. Then the group went to Kivinen's house for lunch. When they turned on the television, the day changed.

"Then it was a tragedy," Kivinen said. "I felt awful. We never realized how much devastation was going on on the north side. We were shocked that people were hurt."

Now a Vancouver resident, Kivinen was Daphne Webb when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980.

She worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and her former husband, Tom Webb, drove a log truck. With children Scott (he was 13 back then) and Wendy (she was 10), they lived in Cowlitz County, southwest of the peak.

Kivinen worked at the St. Helens Ranger Station. She was a clerk-typist in an office that now houses the Pine Creek Information Station, southeast of Mount St. Helens just above Swift Reservoir.

There was a buildup to the catastrophic eruption, including a swarm of earthquakes under Mount St. Helens. They were so small that the office staff didn't feel them, she said.

In March, "the day it did pop off for the first time, we were in the office, and we heard it," Kivinen said. "We assumed it was a logging company" that had been using dynamite to build a road.

The office staff was transferred to another work site. Members of a dozen households that lived there had to relocate: They called themselves the Pine Creek refugees.

Road blocks went up and Gov. Dixy Lee Ray established the Red Zone, barring the public from areas around the volcano.

When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, Kivinen said she slept through the 8:32 a.m. blast.

"I had been out with some Forest Service people on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, my husband and I were supposed to go cutting firewood," but she wanted to sleep in.

Scott Webb said he woke up as the eruption happened, although he didn't feel anything. Then the phone rang, and it was a friend of Kivinen's who lived about 1½ miles away.

"I woke Mom and Dad up," Webb said. "I told them that Evie called and she said the mountain was blowing really big."

"We grabbed the kids," Kivinen said. "They were all dressed. I put a scarf around my head and put a bath robe on and we went to Stan and Evie's house.

"We sat there all morning long, watching. We drank coffee, and I think we had breakfast."

They moved to a small road near the Yale Lake boat launch, where they watched as the shivering mountain sent ripples across the water.

"People would say, 'Here comes another one.' And then you'd feel it," Webb said.

There were other sorts of ripples from the blast that affected the red-zone residents for months.

"We lived behind that road block until October. You had to have a pass" to get in, Kivinen said. "Nobody could come and visit if they lived on the outside."

And every once in awhile, there would be another reminder of the May 18 blast. An eruption in June left trees near their house flocked with wet ash.

"It looked like cement on the trees," she said.

Showers of pumice occasionally pelted their place, and Scott Webb recalled standing out on the yard, watching it come down as his mom ordered him into the house.

"We had a metal roof," Kivinen said. "You could hear 'Pling! Pling!' when pieces of pumice hit the roof."

There also was something that didn't happen. The spot where they'd planned to cut firewood was 7 miles from the eruption. Some logging equipment was at the site, and it was OK, she said.

However, a blast wave that came through was hot enough to singe the tops of trees.

So what would have happened if they'd gotten up at 5:30 a.m. and had been cutting firewood when Mount St. Helens erupted?

"Who knows?" Kivinen said.