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Surviving May 25th, 1980 Mount St. Helens’ Second Eruption

Mt. St. Helens eruption

Chasing Fire

In the early hours of the morning, May 25th 35 years ago, Mount St Helens erupted a second time at 2:30am – and I was there…

I’d known from nine years old what I wanted to do with my life. Make movies.

By age 13, I had a 16mm camera and freelanced local news footage to networks.  By 17, right out of high school, I had begun work as a full-time cameraman at an NBC affiliate, and soon started my own film production company.  Now at 20 years old, I was looking for my ‘Big Break.’

Call it a hunch, call it a premonition, but for weeks I had been drawn to the fire that was kindling at Mount St. Helens.  I spent every spare moment with my camera poised.  On May 18th, 1980, the world was stunned by the raw power that ravaged the picture perfect Mount St. Helens.

Then I was offered an opportunity of a lifetime.  I became the youngest of a five person film crew, the first to capture the devastation from the ground.

Common sense told me not to go near the volcano.  But I was eager for that ‘Big Break’, I wanted to see the mountain up close.  With camera in hand, I leapt from a helicopter thinking that I was prepared for whatever was waiting below.  The sight that greeted our team was a monochrome wasteland.  A once verdant forest was now all gray flattened timbers, and once full of ambient sounds–now dead silent.  The eruption completely altered the terrain, making maps useless.  Magnetism in the ash rendered our compass unusable.  We were now hopelessly lost.  What was planned as a four-hour photo mission, became a four-day struggle for survival.  The excursion became a death march as we fought fatigue, hunger, and growing dissension within our group.

With no food and barely enough water to go around, we were desperate.  Some of our crew were injured.  Unknown to us, we had been declared missing and presumed dead.  Morale plummeted as the possibility of rescue was diminishing.  Then, at 2:30am May 25th, Mount St. Helens erupted again.  Around us it was deathly quiet. However, the shock wave from the blast ricocheted off the stratosphere and was heard 300 miles away.  The atmosphere around us was charged with electricity, and five-mile long sheets of lightning lit up the ash cloud with  brilliant colors of purple, orange, and blue.  As the eruption continued, hot ash fell on us, it became increasingly difficult to breathe.  I prayed, “God help me breathe,” and within moments it began to rain.  The rain mixed with the falling ash, and became like warm mud and the air cleared.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small, tattered Bible that my father had given me just before I left. I blindly flipped the pages searching for encouragement, and read…“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  (Yikes!) But I read on… “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:36-39) I felt peace. Whether I lived or died, I knew that I would be alright.

But the struggle was far from over. The fallen trees made it difficult to navigate our way.  Hip-high hot ash burned our skin and melted the soles off my boots.  My strength was waning and my body slipped into hypothermia, and I drifted in and out of consciousness.

The next morning I looked around. For the first time since the eruption, the fog had cleared and now we could see the Green River below. All of the sudden, the faint lights flashing from the tops of two military rescue helicopters could be seen.  Our crew attempted to get their attention.  But they were 2,000 feet below us and they were looking down as they searched for survivors. We watched in despair as they left the area, flying low down the valley back to their base. It was then that I fell down on my hands and knees and said, “Lord, I’m 20 years old- I will dedicate my life to serving you if you get us out of this mess.”  I was the only one kneeling there; the others had gone back to the clump of trees. In the silence I heard an audible voice say, “Michael, look up to your left!” Startled, I looked, and broken trees lay scattered around, one of them making the shape of a cross. Moments later, as my eyes stayed fixed on the broken tree cross where the voice had told me to look, I saw the blades of a rescue helicopter rise over the hill. We were rescued.

It’s now been 35 years since that life-changing experience at Mount St. Helens. For the past three and a half decades I’ve watched how the land and the people have healed. Despite my initial trepidation, I seem drawn to volcanoes and the science of natural disasters.  Since Mount St. Helens, I’ve learned that there are actually hundreds of active volcanoes in the United States alone, with the potential to erupt anytime, at any of the dozens of West Coast stratovolcanoes. An eruption of Washington’s Mount Rainier would make the Mount St. Helens disaster pale in comparison.  Even more dangerous, the hidden Cascadia subduction zone now fueling these volcanoes could unleash a 9+ mega earthquake that would shake from Northern California to Canada and generate a Pacific-wide tsunami.

Now, living on the Big Island of Hawaii near the most continually active volcano on our planet, I am constantly reminded of the awesome fire in our earth. Today, Mount St. Helens stands as an inspiring National Volcanic Monument. For me, 35 years later, it is also a personal monument, a landmark that graphically reminds me of lessons I’ve learned.  Most importantly, that in any of life’s disasters, the One who made and moves the mountains offers the only solid ground to stand on.

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken.  -Isa 54:10

Michael Lienau
Michael along with his wife Shari and their nine children (4 biological and 5 adopted) live on Hawaii Island. Continuing his fascination with volcanoes and natural disasters, Michael is currently producing an IMAX giant screen film telling the story of how Kilauea Volcano has shaped the people, history and culture of Hawaii.