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Helicopters to hell

Air rescue unit battled ash and debris in desperate hunt for survivors

The Columbian
2 Photos
The pumice plain between Mount St.
The pumice plain between Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake seethes with steam and superheated gases on May 19, 1980. Photo Gallery

Originally published May 15, 2005

The cockpit of the HH-1H Huey helicopter was silent as the crew surveyed the steaming hell of ash, gases and volcanic debris below.

Mike Cooney, a pararescueman with the Air Force Reserve’s elite 304th Rescue Squadron, then based in Portland, knew at once that anyone who had been down there was beyond his help.

Cooney, a resident of Vancouver and a land surveyor by profession, had been on duty at the Portland air base that Sunday morning, monitoring a rescue on Mount Hood. A climber had fallen into a crevasse on the Newton-Clark Glacier.

“One of the helicopter pilots coming back from Mount Hood saw it,” Cooney recalled. “He came in and said, ‘The mountain’s erupting.’”

The 304th had rehearsed for a possible rescue since that March, when Mount St. Helens reawakened with a magnitude 4.1 earthquake. Cooney, an Air Force reservist for 14 years at the time, had met with U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist David Johnston to map the potential perils of a post-eruption rescue mission.

At about 11:30 a.m., two Air Force Reserve helicopters and four pararescuemen were dispatched to Pearson Field in Vancouver. Cooney and Charlie Ek got into one, Dave Ward and Garvin Williams into the other. Their top priorities were to check a USGS observation post at what is now Johnston Ridge; Spirit Lake Lodge, where 83-year-old Harry Truman had cast his fate with the mountain’s; and a National Geographic photo outpost above what is now Castle Lake, where Reid Blackburn, a photographer for The Columbian, had been encamped for several days.

Their advance plan had been to pick up David Johnston, but at the last minute Johnston had agreed to take the place of Harry Glicken, a graduate student, at the USGS observation post six miles north of the volcano. So Glicken joined Ward and Williams in the other chopper.

Grim flight

The helicopters flew up the North Fork of the Toutle River, past Weyerhaeuser’s Camp Baker. A massive landslide triggered by the magnitude 5.1 earthquake that shook the mountain at 8:32 a.m. had sent part of the mountaintop down the Toutle River valley, filling it to an average depth of 150 feet.

“It was very disorienting because of the lack of familiar features,” Cooney said.

Cooney’s crew spotted a car below and tried to deploy a 250-foot cable, but a cloud of ash stirred up by the chopper blades made it impossible to send down a rescuer. The helicopter carrying Ward and Williams stayed behind, finally landing in the dry bed of the Toutle River, and the two men set out on foot toward the stranded car.

Cooney and Ek continued east toward the mountain and entered the death zone. At that time, Cooney said, the only other aircraft in the blast area were a Washington National Guard helicopter piloted by Jess Hagerman and a mysterious civilian Hughes 500 chopper.

The symmetrical peak Cooney had climbed more than a dozen times was shattered, its flanks blanketed with hot ash. Steam and hot water boiled out of the ground.

“Normally there is a bit of chatter, but everyone was dumbstruck,” Cooney said. “It was obvious that there wasn’t anyone near the mountain who needed our help.”

The mountain had claimed Johnston, Truman, Blackburn and many others — 57 in all when the final tally was made. Glicken, overcome with grief and guilt, would spend the rest of the day in a futile search for Johnston’s body.

‘The elevation was wrong’

At midday, the helicopter carrying Cooney and Ek approached Spirit Lake. “The elevation was wrong,” Cooney said. The lake’s bottom had been lifted 295 feet by the avalanche. Its surface was covered with trees killed instantly by the lateral blast of gases and volcanic fragments that had followed the mountain’s uncorking.

“There wasn’t a stick standing up there,” Cooney said. “Those trees up along the ridge were 4 or 5 feet in diameter, and they just snapped. … There was no reason to be there.”

Cooney also knew the crew might not survive a rescue mission in the blast area. Johnston had warned him that the crew could “cook” in the deep, powdery, superheated ash. “You didn’t know if you’d survive a landing. You didn’t know if you went down on a hoist whether you’d survive, either.”

The chopper turned around at Harmony Falls near Spirit Lake’s eastern shore.

Cooney and Ek were headed back downstream, following the North Fork of the Toutle, when co-pilot Tom Nolan spotted two cars on the south side of the valley. “One was on its side. It had been rolled some distance. We hovered. I could see no one inside.”

The second car, a small station wagon, was sitting on the highway next to a towering mound of earth. The debris avalanche had flowed around the car, leaving it on dry pavement.

“One headlight was on,” Cooney said. “You could see inside. There was a person in the driver’s seat. We hovered where we thought we could establish a position. The flight mechanic was getting the hoist ready. Just as we were ready to lower the hoist, the mudflow arrived.”

The viscous, chocolate-colored river of water-saturated debris from the avalanche had begun to slump and ooze down the valley, carrying tree trunks and debris at its leading edge.

A few minutes more and Ek would have been on the ground, in the path of the debris.

Cooney radioed Ward and Williams, who were in harm’s way on the road near Camp Baker, and alerted them to the mudflow. They were five minutes from the stranded car.

“They got to the car and very quickly determined that there was no help there,” Cooney said. “There was a man on the ground and a woman, pregnant, dead in the car. They got their IDs and started heading toward Toutle.” He didn’t think Ward and Williams could make it out in time.

A frantic warning

Continuing down the valley, Cooney spotted a car with someone — a reporter from Seattle, he learned later — sitting inside.

“He had no idea what was coming,” Cooney said. He radioed Ward and Williams that there was a car on the road. They started running. When they reached the reporter, “Dave convinced him they needed to leave,” Cooney said.

The pilot of Cooney’s helicopter made several attempts to land in the swirling smoke and ash, finally setting down on the road just as the reporter’s car, with Ward and Williams inside, approached. “They came flying down the road at 70 to 80 miles per hour with a cloud of billowing dust behind them,” he said. Cooney’s crew plucked all three men from the road with the mudflow at their heels.

Rescuers from the Air Force Reserve and the National Guard spent the rest of the day flying the perimeter of the blast zone, rescuing people trapped in scorched forests north of the mountain and others stranded by the debris avalanche and mudflows, which had taken out roads and bridges.

“I went out with one pilot and brought back a guy who must have been 90 years old, on a respirator,” Cooney said. “You’d just be flying along and you’d see little groups waving at you. Some would have their suitcases packed. We’d land and say, ‘You want out?’ The crews we were on probably carried out 20 people that day.”

Late in the day Cooney’s chopper picked up workers from Pacific Power and Light Co. and ferried them to Swift Reservoir, where they opened the floodgates to create additional storage capacity. Water from the melting of the glaciers was rushing down the Muddy River on the mountain’s southeast flank toward the North Fork of the Lewis River.

More help arrives

By Sunday night, reinforcements from Michigan and southern California had arrived. And Air Force Reserve Cmdr. Mike Peters had stepped in to help establish central command of the rescue operation, Cooney said.

Cooney had closer calls during his 23 years with the 304th, including harrowing rescues in snowstorms. He retired from the reserve in 1989; his current challenge is coordinating surveys for a major Oregon bridge replacement project.

Since that unforgettable day 25 years ago, he has been invited to speak at several gatherings of Mount St. Helens “survivors.”

At first he didn’t think the label fit.

“But I started to think about it, and we were survivors,” he said. “The mountain did try to kill us several times that day.”