Roald Reitan and Venus Ann Dergan came within seconds of dying on the morning of May 18, 1980.
It’s likely that no one who can claim a near-miss with death that day was as far from the mountain as they were.
They were not thrill seekers or volcano gawkers.
They had not been drawn to the mountain by lurid headlines or work assignments.
They weren’t even close.
Reitan, 19, and Dergan, 20, had gone fishing, and were camped along the South Fork of the Toutle River, at a spot where they couldn’t even see the mountain. They were 30 miles to the west, and by anyone’s reckoning they risked nothing more than mosquito bites or dinner burned in the campfire.
Where others who lived to tell their stories had to walk miles to escape the volcano’s searing heat and suffocating ashfall, Reitan and Dergan were 60 seconds from safety. Had the two Tacoma residents had the chance to make a brisk walk to higher ground, their lives would have gone largely unnoticed since then.
But instead they have been interviewed and filmed for newspaper and magazine articles, television programs and documentaries. They have been asked to appear at volcano symposiums. And they have turned down some requests. Dergan said last month that she seeks “credible” treatment of her story. “We don’t want the hype,” she said.
Now they are going to be computer generated, said Reitan: a British company, recently filming a production scheduled to run in 98 countries, has reconstructed their experience as part of the story of the 1980 eruption.
There is plenty to tell, even though Reitan is modest about his experience. “I know other people’s stories are more dramatic,” he said. “If you listen to Jim Scymanky (a logger who barely survived while several colleagues died), his story is hair-raising. But some people say my story is hair-raising, too.
“Instant, ugly flood”
When St. Helens erupted, the landslide and snowmelt triggered by the volcano’s superheated insides created an instant, ugly flood, made even more hideous by the addition of thousands of annihilated trees. As the ashen brew swept down the Toutle Valley, it dismembered stacks of logs stored at timber camps, carrying them along as well.
The mess displaced life beside as well as inside the river. Fish, their gills clogged by ash, flopped on the surface of the volcanic sludge. One resident of the Castle Rock area was photographed as he collected a still-flopping salmon from the Toutle River with his hands.
That was after the Reitan-Dergan campsite was overrun by a wall of logs. Sometime after the eruption, the two were awakened in their tent by the sound of the surging river, just 30 feet from their tent. They raced to Reitan’s Oldsmobile, but it wouldn’t start; to escape the rising waters they climbed to the car’s roof. Logs and water collided with the vehicle and they jumped for their lives.
Venus went under and disappeared. Not until the fourth try was Reitan able to pull her, first by her hair, then a bloody arm, from between tumbling logs. “It couldn’t have hurt any more,” he told The Columbian in 1981. “It was at the point where the logs were squeezing me to death.”
Even so, he said, “I might have faced death, but she tasted it. That water was chocolate-syrup thick, and she could have drowned in it.”
By the time they scrambled up a bank to safety, one of Reitan’s knees had been wrenched and Dergan’s right wrist had been fractured, skin torn to the bone.
Repairing the damage took skin grafts and plastic surgery, physical therapy and weeks off work for a young woman whose only income was that of a cafeteria worker at Weyerhaeuser in Federal Way.
The car’s fate
Reitan’s 1968 Oldsmobile Delta Custom paid the ultimate price for failing to start that morning. It was swept five miles downriver in the loose-leaf forest that nearly killed the young couple. Nose down and tail high at its resting place, the sedan emulated the half-buried cars of Cadillac Ranch, the folk-art display in Amarillo, Texas.
“The trunk was sticking out of the logs like a tombstone,” recalled Reitan, who returned to the vehicle with friends to retrieve a few possessions — a Winchester rifle, Venus’ purse — before leaving the car for dead.
Months later he got a call from a sheriff’s deputy. The car was in an area where logging equipment was working to reclaim the flood-borne trees.
By the time Reitan arrived, log skidders had obliterated the Oldsmobile, and “all I could find was a bumper and a license plate.”
During the earlier visit to collect possessions, the exposed trunk yielded an unscathed bottle of champagne. Reitan and Dergan shared the contents, toasting their good fortune.