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VOLCANO RESCUE REMEMBERED -- MOUNT ST. HELENS

Mount St. Helens before its eruption in 1980 Photo by R.V. Emetaz

Adapted from interviews and excerpted from "Volcano Rescue" by Roland v. Emetaz in a 1980 edition of Mazama magazine.

Foreword: Roland V. Emetaz is a founding board member of the Friends of Fort Vancouver. Known as "Mr. Em" to many, he is a retired Forester with the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region. After devoting his long and enjoyable career advocating outdoor safety, quality customer service and teamwork, Emetaz continues as a volunteer teaching those lessons. He represents the Northwest Avalanche Center in avalanche awareness programs that he presents to various audiences. At other times he is on assignment with the "Northwest 12," an All Hazards Incident Management Team (one of 54 in the nation.) The team manages incidents as diverse as wildfires and hurricanes from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf Coast. In addition to the Friends' Board, he also serves as a Board member of the Northwest Avalanche Center. In "normal" times, Mr. Em may be found in his office – one of several coffee shops in Vancouver, WA. He may be reached with questions or comments at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or through "Contact" on our website.

In 1980, Emetaz was serving as a Forester with the US Forest Service. He was alerted to the earthquakes on Mount St. Helens as early as March 1980, and the possibility of approaching avalanches as a result. He was immediately called to active service with the search and rescue efforts as the mountain erupted that Sunday morning May 18, 1980. Three days later, he was assigned the lead as Public Information Officer at the Toledo (WA) Rescue Center, the primary base for all mountain search and rescue operations. It is important to recall that 171 people were successfully rescued from Mount St. Helens; there were 57 fatalities.

VOLCANO RESCUE REMEMBERED

 
as told by Roland V. Emetaz

AWAKENING OF A VOLCANO

Two months before the volcanic eruption that literally traveled around the globe, Roland Emetaz and his family launched a cross-country ski trip to Spirit Lake on Mount St. Helens. That Sunday, March 22, 1980, was the last time they would see the lake and the mountain as they had known all their lives.

The visit was prompted by a phone call to Emetaz from Forest Ranger Ken Johnson about earthquakes and the possibility of increased avalanche hazards. An aerial view the following day revealed that the rumbling quakes had released several large slab avalanches. Most released in normal expected places – the Forsythe Glacier and across the Plains of Abraham. One appeared on the south side, an unusual location. It was large with a crown of about six feet. The snowpack on the mountain prior to the quakes was relatively stable, but the shakes from beneath were of enough magnitude to produce the observed avalanche activity.

In those early days of the awakening of Mount St. Helens the avalanche activity was the primary concern. A few years earlier the Forest Service had initiated an avalanche advisory and warning program to help alert skiers, hikers, and climbers to the avalanche dangers in the Cascade Mountain Range.

By March 27, the concern for avalanche hazard melted with a spurt of steam and ash from the summit of a volcano that had lain dormant for 123 years. "It seemed a bit strange," Emetaz recalled, "that just plain Mount St. Helens was a dormant volcano. The same mountain that I had climbed, skied, photographed and worked with for 29 years."

The bulge in the vicinity of Goat Rocks grew and grew until finally on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 A.M. an explosion blasted away familiar landmarks. The Lizard, most of Dog's Head, and the Forsyth Glacier were pulverized in a matter of seconds. The blast, accompanied by hot gases, pumice and ash devastated more 150 square miles in a north and northwest direction from the mountain with all trees and vegetation laid flat or killed. The largest ash cloud reached 63,000 feet and was tracked around the world. It created its own weather with rain and lightning. Ten million tons of the mountain peak exploded with the force of a 50-megaton bomb. Hot air and ash triggered more than 60 forest fires and caused the death of 31 people, with 33 people still missing.

"WE ONLY EXPECTED AN AVALANCHE NOT AN ATOMIC BOMB"

"The rescue effort began instantly,' Emetaz said. "It was a monumental task considering its scale, the magnitude of the event and the many unknowns that rescuers faced each day." None of those involved had experience dealing with pyroclastic flows or their aftereffects. Skamania County Sheriff Bill Closner said it all: "We only expected an avalanche, not an atomic bomb."

Though the rescue effort was criticized from several quarters as being highly disorganized during the first three days, this was the same period that 170 people were rescued, all within the first 36 hours. "For such an unexpected situation," Emetaz remarked, "little criticism was deserved." He credited the USAF 304th Aerospace Rescue & Recovery Squadron, Washington Army National Guard, US Coast Guard, US Army, 3rd of the 5th Cavalry (Air), 9th ID, Civil Air Patrol and USDA Forest Service.

A few initial search and rescue missions were launched from several locations, but the primary Emergency Operations Center was located at Toledo Airport, 35 miles northwest of Spirit Lake. The organization followed the usual structure where the primary responsibility for initiating, directing, and conducting search and rescue lay with the County Sheriffs.

Overlapping grid search patterns covering 6,000 square miles were conducted by military units who were the prime contributors in air operations, communications, as well as ground support. Numerous agencies and volunteers made tremendous contributions to the total effort. "The entire search and rescue operation was hampered by poor weather," Emetaz noted, "the complete camouflage effect of ashfall, and the scope of devastation in the blast area. It was difficult to spot evidence from the air and extremely hazardous to land aircraft, even helicopters."

On May 25 at 2:30 PM, a few tense moments rocked the Toledo Rescue Center. An ominous dark plume puffed to 14,000 feet accompanied by increasing harmonic tremors. In counsel with the US Geological Survey geologist, all search aircraft and ground crews within the red zone were recalled at 2:50 PM. Later, the seismic activity subsided, and the search and rescue efforts resumed.

RESCUE EFFORTS AND THE CHALLENGE

The rescue efforts in brief, looked like this:

Sunday, May 18 by noon four aviation units were called in to operate the search missions in the three-county disaster zone: Cowlitz, Skamania, and Lewis counties. The 304th Air Force Reserve out of Oregon and the 116th US Army National Guard of Washington were assigned to Cowlitz and Skamania counties. The US Coast Guard was assigned to rescue on the Cowlitz and Toutle Rivers, while the 3/5 Cavalry Unit was assigned to Lewis County.

On Monday evening, May 19, it was determined that a joint effort be pulled together to coordinate and control the air and ground missions. By Tuesday evening the three county sheriffs decided to move all air operations to Toledo Airport.

The weather on Wednesday morning (May 21) grounded all search and rescue missions. By Thursday morning air operations resumed under the command of Lt. Colonel F. David Lambert, Civil Air Patrol, as Air Operations Officer. All operations continued thus until terminated at 6:00 PM on May 29, 1980.

As of May 28, approximately 1,975 personnel were involved in direct support of the rescue operation involving nearly 20,000 manhours. Five hundred seventy-seven sorties were flown over the devastated areas involving more than 1,000 aircraft hours and using 258 aircraft.

The rescue operations were accomplished in three phases:

Phase 1 – Rescue of survivors throughout the disaster area.

Phase 2 – Systematic search using standard grid techniques

Phase 3 – Designated crew grid search (Two aircraft repeatedly searched and researched the assigned grid)

This last effort resulted in the recovery of 21 victims, all having died of suffocation. Concurrently, five individuals previously observed and contacted in the devastated area and later reported missing were recovered alive. All were suffering from ash in their eyes; one was hypothermic, and another had a leg injury.

"My assignment during these hectic days," Emetaz explained, "was Public Information Officer at the Toledo Rescue Center. It was interesting, challenging and at times frustrating." Emetaz talked with 30 to 60 media people twice a day. The media came from all over the world – Tokyo TV, French TV and the BBC were a few he got to know. "Besides the media," he continued, "the job involved keeping a host of others informed, too." Those included the three county sheriffs, the Forest Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, State of Washington Emergency Services, and the troops at the rescue center in Toledo.

Never one to take a bow for personal accomplishments, Roland Emetaz concluded:

"I would like to salute all the folks that were involved in the rescue. They did a tremendous job I know – I was there! It was an event of a lifetime."

Search and Rescue efforts were based at Toledo Airport, WA. 171 people were rescued after the blast. Photo by R.V. Emetaz

Inside the crater of Mount St Helens after 1982. Photo by R.V. Emetaz
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