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Surviving the blast - and memories

Bruce Nelson lived through Mount St. Helens' eruption but is haunted by memories of his friends who didn't

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Bruce Nelson thought it was the end of the world when the Mount St. Helens volcano blew its top 20 years ago.

As he approaches Thursday's anniversary, he remembers being tossed through the air like a grain of sand. He remembers trying to breathe through his sweatshirt. He remembers car-sized chunks of ice from the Portland, Ore.-area mountain's glacier thudding to earth around him.

A flurry of thoughts whirled through his brain. ``Is Portland still there?'' was one of them.

Seconds before, 8 a.m. on a pleasant Sunday, Nelson, then 22, had been toasting marshmallows. Suddenly, it was Judgment Day.

``I didn't realize how much it effected me until I moved to Alaska,'' Nelson said late last week, just before flying south with fiancee Jo Olson to film an anniversary segment for ``The Today Show.''

Nelson moved to Juneau five years ago and works as a baker and cook at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.

In Juneau, he was in a vehicle accident, which should ``not have been a big deal, but I got a panic attack out of it.'' Not knowing what's going to happen in any particular situation triggers fear disproportionate to its cause, he said.

``I was drinking heavily and didn't know why. Then I realized I was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome,'' Nelson said. ``When I became aware of it, I got help at a local clinic to deal with it.''

Last week, his daughter was on a school camping trip for three nights, and he found himself worrying and not being able to control it.

``Of course, parents worry,'' he said, ``but I think there's a little mountain in there, too.''

He attributed his continuing disease to guilt, the same kind of guilt that shadows Holocaust survivors.

``It's guilt that I survived, while my friends died. And it was my spot. We hiked into an area of virgin timber on the Green River where the riverbank is covered with a beautiful, moss-like carpet. We were steelhead fishing,'' he said.

This spot was associated with his ``deepest, oldest memories'' because of the many pleasant times he shared there with his grandfather. ``You can't see Mount St. Helens because there's a ridge between there and the river, but as the crow flies we were only 14 miles away,'' he said.

Nelson and his friends never heard the mountain blow because they were too close to it. But they felt the incredible energy released.

``Two huge trees were uprooted where my girlfriend, Sue Ruff, and I were standing. We fell down into the hole. That actually put us below ground level, so we were kept from being burned severely. Our hair was frizzed, and the hair on our arms was burned off, but we were saved from worse burns.''

Nelson's friends Dan Balch, 20, and Brian Thomas, 22, were rescued by the National Guard. Two additional friends, Terry Crall and Karen Varner, both 21, were missing.

``I really owe `The Today Show' a big favor,'' Nelson said. ``I had two other people there -- Terry and Karen. I was dealing with their parents who wanted to know what's up with their kids.''

Nelson and his girlfriend hiked 20 miles through knee-deep hot ash. They were rescued 12 hours after the blast. He wanted to return immediately with an ax, but wasn't allowed to do so.

``There were so many counties and sheriffs involved, but no one would help me find these kids. I went on `The Today Show' three days after the mountain blew, and still nobody would let me in there to hunt for them.''

David Burrington of ``Today'' told Nelson that if he would get the people and chain saws, a helicopter would be provided. Nelson gratefully accepted. ``But I made them promise me no filming of the kids,'' Nelson said.

``They were expecting more blasts (from the mountain) and didn't want civilians there. But Burrington said, `We are going to make you look like the asses you really are, if you don't let us up there.' And it wasn't 15 minutes and we were up.''

Five days after the blast, Nelson found Crall and Varner, dead, embracing each other in their tent.

Nelson stressed that his friends ``didn't die because they were kids being dumb. They were just having fun, fishing, hiking, in a place that was supposedly safe. There had been puffs of smoke from Mount St. Helens but nothing big.''

Some vulcanologists didn't consider it a major threat, he said.

A 10-mile buffer zone had been established, but he and his friends were well outside it. With a force equal to 250 million tons of TNT, the eruption killed 57 people and obliterated 150 square miles of timber.

Nelson believes the death toll would have been greater had the eruption occurred the following day. ``There would have hundreds of loggers in there on a Monday,'' he noted.

Nelson will appear Thursday in two shows remembering the Mount St. Helens blast. He participated last summer in filming for The Learning Channel, which will air its program from 9-10 p.m. on cable Channel 42. NBC's ``The Today Show'' airs from 6 to 8 a.m. Thursday on cable Channels 21 and 98.



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