Saturday, May 21, 2005

Read about Mount St.Helen's historical volcano eruptions and the survival story behind it

After 123 years of geologic tranquility, Mount St. Helens - the nation's youngest and most dangerous volcano - awakened with a mighty roar May 18, 1980.The historic blast transformed the picturesque, snow-covered Washington peak into a hell on earth, killing 57 people, spewing a dense cloud of volcanic ash more than 20 miles high, and triggering an avalanche of mud and debris that devastated more than 600 square miles of forests.

Many stories about the mountain focus on the devastation of the ecosystem and its remarkable recovery - proof of nature's ability to destroy and regenerate itself. In his book "Echoes of Fury," award-winning investigative journalist Frank Parchman takes a fresh angle, telling the harrowing true tales of eight people - volcanologist Don Swanson, tree thinner Jim Scymanky, graduating student Peter Frenzen, adventurous photographer Robert Rogers, single working mother Donna Parker, campers Roald Reitan and Venus Dergan, and rookie newspaper reporter Andre Stepankowsky - whose lives suddenly and unexpectedly changed during and after the 1980 blast.

The volcano awoke with an initial March 27 eruption."Geologists said it was not a major eruption," Parchman notes in the book's prologue. "They disagreed on what would happen next. Some believed the mountain would have series of these minor eruptions and then return to its slumber. Others predicted a day of doom when the volcano would blow fire, smoke, ash, and rock into the air, and send floods of mud and melted snow into the valleys below."Everyone now knows which view proved true.Parchman's extensive journalism background feature stints as staff writer, investigative reporter, and editor at a dozen daily and weekly newspapers and magazines in California, Oregon, Washington, and Tennessee.

At the time St. Helens blew her stack, he served as public relations director at Emanuel Hospital in Portland. As he worked with families, hospital staff, rescuers, law enforcement officials, and the media during that time, Parchman gained a unique perspective of the unfolding drama.Now living in Redmond, Wash., Parchman took that human interest perspective to skillfully interweave riveting accounts about eight people whose lives were altered - and ultimately transformed - by the eruption and its aftermath.One of them - United States Geological Survey volcanologist Don Swanson - is haunted by guilt after switching shifts at an observation post with geologist David Johnston, who died in the blast.

He went on to become the world's only scientist to predict volcanic eruptions with any degree of accuracy - not just once, but 15 times, sometimes to the day. Another - Andre Stepankowsky, a cub reporter for The Daily News in Longview, Wash. - became obsessed with the mountain's effects on the community. He helped the newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize for its eruption coverage, and is still there today as a seasoned city editor mentoring the news staff. The mountain still captivates Stepankowsky, especially since the unpredictable volcano recently rumbled back to life.

As visitors mark the silver anniversary of the dramatic event, the mountain is again living up to its original name the Northwest Indians gave it: Smoking Mountain."What every small, independent press needs once in a while is dumb luck and good timing," said Kent Sturgis, president of Epicenter Press, based in Kenmore, Wash., which published "Echoes of Fury." Founded in 1988, the regional press focuses on the arts, history, environment, diverse cultures, and lifestyles of the North Pacific and high latitudes.Parchman took five years to research and write, missed three deadlines, and worked with an editor for seven months, before giving the publisher a finished manuscript September 25, 2004.

Three days later, Mount St. Helens stirred to life once more.Smoking Mountain remains active at USGS Alert Level 2, which means continued minor seismic activity, along with low emissions of steam, gases, and ash. Alert Level 3 is the most urgent volcano advisory, indicating the possibility of an eruption that threatens people and property.The mountain's renewed activity makes Parchman's book almost a must-read. It weaves an account of nature's raw power, survival, heartbreaking loss, the thrill of scientific discovery, the recovery of nature, and the healing of human bodies and spirits.

"Echoes of Fury" is a terrifying reminder of nature's potentially devastating effects, and the need for humans to learn from the past and prepare for what will, inevitably, occur again.Scientists are keeping a wary watch on the hot-tempered lady, as Parchman indicates in the book's epilogue. They say the patterns of activity since Mount St. Helens rumbled back to life are "unprecedented." "Signs now indicate to scientists they could face an eruptive phase lasting years and possibly decades," Parchman writes. "Nearly every active volcano in the world has unique characteristics, often requiring scientists to customize their predictive tools.

Even the same volcano can display different characteristics from one eruptive period to another. Predicting the future of the mountain is difficult."Don Swanson believes volcanoes are often at their most dangerous when awakening from hibernation. And he is certain of one thing: another catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens as big as or bigger than 1980 is a question of when, not if.

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