Rescuers, survivor recount surreal events following blast



Posted on May 18, 2010 at 6:11 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 19 at 9:34 AM

At 8:32 a.m. 30 years ago today, the reality of a modern day volcanic eruption in the continental U.S. turned all too real. The top 1,500 feet of Mount St. Helens was blown off.

Snow and ice melt into massive rivers of mud called a Lahar. Hot gases and ash extinguished life to the north of the mountain in so-called pyroclastic flows, and trees around Spirit Lake were wiped out. In Eastern Washington, clouds of thick ash turned cities such as Yakima from bright sun to night in the middle of the day.

When it was over, 57 people had died.

"(I) probably should not have survived it, but somehow we did," said Venus Dergan, survivor.

Dergan and her boyfriend, Rold Reitan, did not die that day, but came close. They had been camping in an area near the town of Toutle when the mountain came to them. They were swept down river for a mile amidst a flow of mud, water and debris.

"I was just saying, 'We're going to die. You just started to try and safe yourself.' I'm hanging on trying to stay afloat," recalled Dergan. "It's a day of reflection for me, because I'm just happy to be able to get up every day for an extra 30 years.

She was bedridden for a month and it took two years to fully recover.

"It makes you think about life every day when you get up. But it does change your life. An experience like that does change your life," she said.

Dergan is giving back, among other things, by helping run this weekend's cleanup in Tacoma.

For the first time, we're seeing some pictures of Mount St. Helens eruption we've never seen before, taken by the crews flying about the only thing that could get around near the mountain: helicopters for the Washington National Guard.

"It was just like a big black avalanche, and lightning coming out of it. It was, well, almost terrifying," said Hal Kolb, Washington National Guard.

"There's no question about what the guard did. I mean, there wasn't anybody else out there, exactly," said Jess Hagerman, Washington National Guard.

In a documentary prepared by the National Guard itself, guard members showed the pictures of the rescues and spoke of the challenges of flying in a dangerous environment that was so surreal it was disorienting.

"Your depth perception is off. Your visual cues are off, and I'm grateful that nobody had an accident. I thought about it. After making that first landing I thought, 'I don't want to do this again,'" said Kolb.