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A longstanding journalist recalls the day he narrowly escaped dying on Mount St. Helens.

COURTESY PHOTO: CLAUDIA J. HOWELL, OREGON JOURNAL - Don Hamilton, then a cub reporter, standing on Mount St. Helens in 1981. In 1980, I was a 26-year-old rookie reporter at The Oregon Journal, as stupid as I was young. The stupid part almost killed me at Mount St. Helens.

The Journal newsroom then was filled with clacking typewriters and teletype machines, all the old newsroom clichés, noisy, smoky and annoying. I'd been a Journal reporter for only nine months, but already filled with arrogance and bravado.

One morning I checked out a report of a series of earthquakes beneath Mount St. Helens. I called the geology department at Portland State University and immediately heard excited shouts over the phone from staffers gathered around the seismograph. An eruption could be imminent., they said. I'm sorry. What did you say? What's imminent? A volcanic eruption? Huh?

Imminent, later or maybe not at all, I was told, but these are the classic birth pains of a volcano. I walked over to the city desk clutching my notes. Well, I started, PSU says a volcanic eruption may be imminent.

That's when the color drained from their faces.

They went very quiet and looked at each other, eyebrows raised, saying nothing. One of them gulped. After maybe 10 seconds, the assistant city editor looked up at me and said, "Write it up."

I did and it became the loud headline in the afternoon edition, the one that was supposed to attract street sales with splashy headlines. I could practically hear the Oregonian newsroom grumbling, there goes the crazy Journal again with their sensational headlines.

The first eruption happened the very next day. A small one but still an eruption.

In the weeks to come I was up at Mount St. Helens a lot. I got to know Harry Truman, the owner of the Spirit Lake Lodge who received worldwide attention for his stubborn, bullheaded refusal to leave despite earthquakes increasing both in numbers and in magnitude.

I was standing with Harry on his porch one day when the Washington state troopers roared up. Harry, come on! The mountain's erupting! Let's get out of here!

The color drained from his face, too.

He was a character. His lodge had a player piano, a lot of cats and an endless supply of bourbon. Hanging on the wall was a letter from U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a frequent visitor. The letter, on Supreme Court letterhead, advised Harry not to let that wood-burning stove jump out at him again and burn his leg.

I went to Spirit Lake for the last time on May 17, 1980, the day before the big eruption and the day that could have been my last full day alive. It was weird.

An earthquake hit. Highway 504 waved up and down, like shaking out a blanket. The superintendent of the Washington State Patrol stopped by but he seemed a bit star-struck around Truman.

Truman offered me a room for the night. I wanted to stay. But he had no phone and with no way to call in my story, I had to decline. I went back to Portland.

If he'd had a phone, I would have died with him at 8:32 the next morning.

For weeks to come something nagged at me about that day. Something was different and spooky and I couldn't shake it. I was anxious and tense. Volcano stress, was my diagnosis. Months later I figured it out. It was absolutely silent at Spirit Lake the day before the eruption. The normal background drone of the woods, the sounds we usually never notice, were completely absent.

Sometimes, a scientist told me later, animals sense when something big is about to happen.

In the years since I've thought a lot about my good luck. I guess you can't fear the bullet you never see coming. But after Mount St. Helens I tempered a lot of the bravado I brought to my job with careful steps, second thoughts and chosen words. Here's what I learned:

Bad stuff — crashes, bad weather, viruses, volcanoes, you name it — happens all the time. And the people who get buried, or killed by it, by and large are not to blame. They're unlucky. I lucked out. That's the way the world is.

Lots of things you do without consequence one day can get you killed the next.

Don Hamilton served as a reporter for the Portland Tribune from 2001-05. He is a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation.


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