the north face kids Helens eruption part of PBS series
That’s what Sue Nystrom tells herself when she considers her narrow escape that Sunday morning on Mount St. Helens.
Nystrom and her boyfriend were trudging through a wasteland of volcanic ash and toppled trees, trying to find help for four friends. Suddenly, helped dropped from the sky. It was a National Guard helicopter piloted by Mike Cairns.
They were airlifted to Kelso, along with another survivor. Nystrom (she was Sue Ruff back then) has wanted to thank the pilot, which she did when they were reunited this summer at the volcano.
While Mindy Brugman never had a chance to thank David Johnston for saving her life, she was able to share her feelings with his sister.
Those emotional meetings are woven into six episodes of a television series “We’ll Meet Again” that begins this month on PBS. It follows the lives of people whose paths intersect during dramatic chapters of history. It is hosted by Emmy winning journalist Ann Curry, who also is executive producer.
The second episode “Rescued from Mount St. Helens” is built around the 1980 volcanic eruption. Jan. 30 on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Nystrom and boyfriend Bruce Nelson were among a group of six friends camping north of Mount St. Helens, outside the restricted zone. Dan Balch and Brian Thomas were seriously injured by the blast. Nystrom and Nelson couldn’t find Karen Varner and Terry Crall among the all downed trees.
“We called and called and called,” Nystrom, 58, said. (They learned later that Varner and Crall died when a tree fell on their tent.)
So Nystrom and Nelson headed out on a tortuous trek to find help.
“Our intention was to get to a bigger road or a point of reference where our chances of being seen would go up,” she said by phone from Mexico, where she spends the winter.
Their help came by way of a National Guard training exercise near Yakima.
“Phones started to ring off the hook. Somebody from the state said get out of there, we’ll need you to do any type of rescue work or assistance we could do.
“We looked to the west and could see the entire western sky blacker than I’d ever seen it, and it went for miles up into the air. There was lightning, and the leading edge was just ugly. We made a spot decision to take off as ash was falling on our aircraft. Five or six made it out that day.
“We were given quadrants to search, even though we couldn’t see more than 200 yards. It was covered with ash, trees were down; it looked like a moonscape. There was no visibility above us,” said Cairns, who had received a Purple Heart as a gunship pilot during the Vietnam War.
His crew chief spotted tracks that Nystrom and Nelson had left in the ash, and Cairns eventually was able to land the helicopter.
“We had to commit to the landing; we would lose sight of the ground 50 feet above ground because of the amount of ash,” he said. “We didn’t see the ground until we were two or three feet above it.”
As Nystrom and Nelson were being flown to Kelso, along with a third survivor, the couple had something else in mind. Balch and Thomas, who had a broken hip, had to be rescued too.
“They didn’t want to go back unless we got them,” Cairns said by phone from the Seattle area.
Jesse Hagerman, piloting a smaller helicopter, “made a phenomenal landing on a one lane bridge” to rescue Thomas. The fuel light was blinking. We had five to 10 minutes of fuel left,” Cairns said. “It was not a wise decision, but we didn’t have a choice.”
When Nystrom and Cairns were reunited last year at the viewpoint now known as Johnston Ridge Observatory, she had a surprise for the 70 year old Army and National Guard veteran.
His bravery inspired Nystrom to join the National Guard, she said. She served for 34 years, including a deployment in Afghanistan.
“Not only did he save my life,” Nystrom said, “he inadvertently pushed me into a career.”
Scientist saved others, but didn’t survive
“I really did my utmost to kill myself.”
That’s how Mindy Brugman recalls May 17, 1980.
The glacier researcher was among a trio of young scientists who were planning to camp overnight at an observation point near Mount St. Helens.