Heat of the Moment

Terror Rained from the Sky

Sep 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

When Mount St. Helens erupted at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Washington-based Bruce Nelson and Sue Ruff, both 22, were camping with four friends on the banks of the state's Green River—a presumably safe 14 miles north of the volcano—eating marshmallows for breakfast. But the wrath of St. Helens spared nothing in her reach, and within minutes of the eruption nearly every tree in a 15-mile radius had been ripped out of the ground. Nelson and Ruff were blown into a deep hole left by an uprooted tree. After the initial blasts ended, the couple hid under a pile of debris as huge ice chunks fell from the sky. Later, they heard two of their friends, Brian Thomas and Dan Balch, calling for help. Balch had been severely burned by a heat blast, which had melted the flesh off his arms, and he had no shoes. Thomas had been hit by a tree, which broke his hip. Nelson and Ruff made a shelter for Thomas, walked Balch to the river, then began hiking through hot, knee-high ash to find help. That night, they were spotted by emergency helicopters and rescued. Nelson argued with the National Guard pilot until he agreed to take him back up to the camp to get his friends. By then, Balch had been given an extra pair of shoes by a group of passing survivors and had hiked out with them, and Thomas was later evacuated by a small helicopter. Five days after the blast, authorities consented to fly Nelson back up to his camp to look for his other two friends, Terry Crall and Karen Varner, who were still missing. He found them in their tent, Crall's arm wrapped protectively over Varner—both dead, crushed by a tree.

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