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Mount St. Helens Eruption Recalled

May 14, 2000 GMT

CASTLE ROCK, Wash. (AP) _ The blast came without warning, snapping trees and engulfing Jim Scymanky and three other loggers in a suffocating wave of hot, black ash from Mount St. Helens.

Suffering from severe burns over 46 percent of his body and struggling to breathe, Scymanky gave up hope of being rescued and instead wondered how long it would take to die.

``I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m being buried. The pain is just unbearable,″ he said Sunday of the day 20 years ago when the mountain erupted. Hours later, two National Guard helicopters swooped through the murky ash and rescued him. His three co-workers perished.


On Sunday, Scymanky was among more than a dozen survivors who gathered as part of an ongoing celebration of the 20th anniversary of the May 18, 1980, eruption that killed 57 people and stunned scientists with its ferocity. The event was held at the Silver Lake Visitor Center, located about 45 miles west of the mountain.

Each survivor described the eruption from a different perspective.

Dorothy and Keith Stoffel of Spokane had a bird’s eye view from the air.

The two geologists were in a small airplane about 500 feet above the summit when the north flank of the mountain collapsed in a landslide that has been determined the largest in recorded history. Massive explosions followed.

``I thought, ’Oh dear, this is the big one and here we are right above it,‴ Dorothy Stoffel said in an interview in front of a visitor center display of aerial pictures she and her husband took.

They snapped a few pictures and then realized they were in danger. Their pilot put the aircraft into a steep dive to gain speed and outrace the oncoming blast wave. They didn’t have time to be scared until they landed in Portland and raced into the terminal, leaving the plane sitting on the tarmac with its doors open.

Elsewhere, Robert Rogers had spent days evading authorities enforcing a no-trespassing zone around the mountain, which had been shaken by earthquakes for two months. The Portland man, 30 years old at the time, was on a nearby ridge on the west side of the mountain and watched the eruption, which blew eastward.

``I’m probably the closest land survivor,″ he said. ``This is a big part of my life.″

Many survivors at Sunday’s event showed slides and film.


But not Scymanky. He escaped only with his life, and barely at that.

Scymanky, who lives in Woodburn, Ore., was working with a small logging team above the Toutle River that bright and clear Sunday. The four men figured they were safe because they were 10 to 13 miles from the mountain.

Suddenly, a Hispanic co-worker higher up on the ridge came racing downhill shouting, in Spanish, ``The volcano is exploding!″

Scymanky threw his saw aside and then _ BOOM _ he heard what sounded like two jetliners bearing down on him. Within seconds, the forest around him was leveled and he felt himself suffocating.

The men tried to seek relief from their burns _ Scymanky said his cotton gloves had melted onto his hands _ by heading down to a river that usually runs cold and fast. But it had turned into ``gray muck.″

Next, they sought shelter in their logging truck, which had been moved by the blast but remained upright. The four squeezed into the cab, increasing the pain from their burns as their shoulders and arms touched. Finally, they could bear it no longer.

``We decided to just get the hell out of there,″ he said.

The four set off walking down a logging road. Scymanky said he later learned from rescuers that they hiked 4.5 miles before reaching a huge avalanche that blocked the road. The river below was rising quickly as mud and volcanic debris filled the valley.

They were trapped. Scymanky figured there was no hope of rescue.

``I thought to myself _ and I didn’t say it to anyone else _ ’how long is it going to take to die? This is a long, painful death.‴

Two of his colleagues made fateful decisions. One tried to climb over the avalanche, while the other tried to beat the mudflow and cross the valley below. Neither lived.

A few hours later, the helicopters arrived and carried Scymanky and his lone remaining co-worker to safety. The co-worker later died.

Scymanky, who suffered burns on his back, neck, arms and legs, never logged again. He now makes a living restoring antique cars.

He has been back several times to the area where he believes _ he’s not sure because the eruption completely transformed the landscape around the mountain _ he almost died.

``Today, I still can’t believe I made it out of there,″ he said.


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