- Journal of
Dr. Harry Dalton, Ph.D.
- It's often said that everyone
has, at some point in their lives, one defining moment. A moment
that so changes their lives that nothing is ever the same again.
That moment came for me in the upper Cascade Mountain Range in
a small town called Dante's Peak.
My name is Harry Dalton, and I'm a doctor of volcanology, which
is the study of volcanoes. I was born in Dublin, Ireland, my
parents died in an automobile accident when I was ten years old,
at which time I was sent to live with my father's only brother,
Charlie Dalton. Charlie was a geologist, never married, who travelled
wherever his work called. Not knowing what else to do with a
ten year old boy, he took me along, teaching me about his work,
about what various rocks meant, how to recognize formations,
even let me help a bit. By the time I was eighteen, there was
no doubt that I wanted to follow in my uncle's footsteps, and
he sent me to school to earn a degree in the field. During those
years, I found myself fascinated with volcanoes, but felt that
they were something that I would never have need to study more
than my geology courses covered.
Joining Charlie in New Zealand, I found myself recalling things
I had learned about volcanoes, and realized quickly that the
local mountain was near to eruption. Charlie and his collegues
refused to listen to a newly graduated neophyte, and insisted
that I had spent too much of my time reading from books, and
not enough getting my hands dirty. So they sent me to another
part of the site while Charlie remained to inspect an interesting
The mountain sent a warning tremor, and I heard rock falling,
and tried to get where I'd left Charlie. I wound up waiting until
the quake subsided before racing to the rock face. It had collapsed,
trapping Charlie and two other men. One survived. Charlie didn't
That experience sent me back to school to get my doctorate in
volcanology, after which I went to work for the United States
Geological Survey, based out of Vancouver, Washington. I travelled
everywhere there was a volcano with an "attitude",
New Zealand, the Philipines, New Guinea, Brazil-. So much travel
made the possibility of marriage a rather distant thought, and
I came to believe that I would end up like Charlie, alone.
Until I met a young woman that I worked with at the USGS. Marianne
Hodges. She was a volcanologist as well, still working on her
doctorate. We worked as part of a team, sent out to investigate
possible eruptions. I was always relieved when there was no eruption,
when the mountain would go back to sleep. But Marianne wanted
to see an eruption, to actually know what it was like. She was
forever asking me about the ones I'd seen, and we even planned
a trip to Hawaii to study that island's active volcanoes.
I fell in love with her. She was so full of life, of enthusiasm
that was contagious, and I wanted to be with her for the rest
of my life. We planned to marry, but were summoned to investigate
a possible eruption in Columbia, South America.
- Columbia. Even now, I can still
recall how hot it was. Hellishly so. We set up the monitoring
equipment, and realized quickly that the mountain meant business.
Marianne was delighted, excited that she would get to see her
first real eruption. I found myself hoping that it would satisfy
her, that I would be able to convince her that it was time to
settle down, to stop chasing volcanoes all around the world.
I took the truck up the mountain to check out a monitoring station
that seemed to be malfunctioning, and while I was there, all
hell broke loose. The rain that had been steadily falling for
two days became filled with ash, coating everything with a gray
and brown sheen. I called Marianne on the radio, told her to
get packed up so we could leave, and didn't wait for her response.
I needed to concentrate on my driving to get back down the mountain.
The villagers, who had refused to believe our warnings, began
to evacuate the village, and as I drove through the muddy, ashy
streets, I found myself unable to see the road, even with the
windshield wipers on their highest speed. Flaming chunks of rock
in various sizes began to fall into the streets, blown from the
top of the volcano during the eruption, and as I approached the
building where we had set up shop, I realized that we might have
waited too late to get out safely.
Marianne was in the doorway as I got out of the truck and ran
toward the building, telling her it was time to leave. She was
filled with the excitement of witnessing her first eruption,
and said that we should stay, that the readings were phenomenal.
I told her we had to go then, and started packing up, telling
Juan and Chico to get the things into the other truck and get
to the fort.
Marianne and I led the way, with Marianne still feeling the adrenalin
rush from the excitement. She'd never been more beautiful than
she was that day, even caked in gray rainwater, her dark hair
plastered to her head. I started to tell her that if we got out
of that, I was quitting, going to go teach somewhere, in a safe
university. But Marianne said that we'd have some stories to
tell, still to excited to notice my lack of enthusiasm and very
A huge rock fell onto the hood of the truck, crushing it, and
to this day I have no idea why that truck kept running. Seeing
that, Marianne's enthusiasm seemed to waver as she realized the
danger we were in. I started trying to keep her spirits up, telling
her we were going to make it- when a smaller rock, not much larger
than my fist, slammed through the top of the truck- directly
above where Marianne was seated.
When I recovered from the surprise, I looked over, asking Marianne
if she was alright- only to see her sitting, eyes closed, hands
shaking as if she were having a seizure- and blood pouring from
the right side of her head. She went limp, and I pulled her to
me, not stopping, wanting only to get as far away from that damned
mountain as I possibly could, mourning the fact that another
mountain had taken Marianne from me just as another had taken
I took a six month leave of absence, partially my own idea, partially
on the suggestion of the psychologists at USGS. During that time,
I taught a class at the university of Oregon in Portland for
a friend of mine. While I was there, I met a young geology student
named Nancy Wilson, who was considering a change in her course
of study. She told me that she hadn't found geology as exciting
as she'd hoped, so I told her about my chosen field, about volcanoes,
how you never knew which one was going to be the one that gave
the show. By the end of the course, Nancy had decided to go for
her doctorate in volcanology, and I got her a job as an intern
I enjoyed the change that teaching gave me, but at the end of
the six months, I was itching to return to the USGS, to get back
into the field. I deliberately placed myself in danger, I suppose,
waiting until the last possible moment to get out during the
next eruption, barely escaping. I knew that it was only a matter
of time before I made a fatal mistake- a mistake that would end
my life much as Marianne's had ended- in the line of duty. The
psychologists began suggesting that I take some vacation time,
said that I was near to 'burn out' and needed some time to recharge
While I agreed with the assessment, I found that it wasn't quite
that easy to walk away. Everytime I would schedule a fishing
trip, something would come up, requiring me to put my plans on
hold. My boss at USGS, Dr. Paul Dreyfus, the man who had given
me my job there, who had taken a chance on a fresh doctor of
volcanology, had often been the one to call me back, to insist
that he was sorry for my having to cancel my plans, but I was
A month before I was sent to Dante's Peak, the USGS psychologist
strongly recommended that I take some time off to relax and get
away from work. I resisted the idea, insisting that I was fine,
knowing that I wasn't, that I did need the time off. But the
psychologist was very insistant, and I finally agreed to a two
week vacation. I told Paul Dreyfus that I was going to take the
fishing trip I'd been planning for three years, but I'd only
been home for two days when Paul called and left a message on
my machine to call the office.
I tried to resist the temptation to return his call, even packed
a bag to leave, and was set to go the next morning. As I was
doing my usual morning routine of fifty pushups, Paul called
again. I really intended to simply drive through Vancouver to
where I planned to go fishing. But my route took me past USGS,
and I stopped in, knowing that the fishing trip would be put
off one more time.
After hearing Paul's news that there was some activity around
Dante's Peak, I put the chances against an eruption of Dante's
Peak at ten thousand to one, but my curiousity had been piqued
by the activity that the monitors had revealed. I told Paul that
I would go check it out on my way, and then, since I expected
to find nothing of interest, continue my vacation plans.
Dante's Peak was a town like many others in America, filled with
the atmosphere that went with such towns. The town was celebrating
being named the second best place to live in America with a population
under twenty thousand. After checking into the local motel, I
went in search of the town's mayor, Rachel Wando, who had agreed
to show me around the area when contacted by Paul. My first impression
of the mayor of Dante's Peak was that she cared about her town.
She gave a short speech about the town's good points, and when
she was done, I approached her. It took her a moment to place
why I was there, but she told the gentlemen who had also approached
that she would call them later and said that she could show me
around - after we made one stop.
She drove her truck to a closed, locked mine and honked the horn.
Her daughter, Lauren, a pretty girl of about eight, began to
ask me if I had children, implying that her mother seemed to
believe that having children was a bother. I knew that wasn't
true, had seen the way Rachel looked at her daughter, and I also
saw her frustration as she blew the horn again and called her
son's name before getting out of the truck to go the mine. Graham
Wando came out along with some friends, and he got into the truck,
not wanting to talk. He showed his sister a smoky quartz crystal
that he'd found, and I took the opportunity to tell him what
it was, that I'd had one like it when I was his age- which I
found out later was eleven. Graham asked his mother to drop him
at his grandmother's- and she refused, insisting that I had waited
long enough to get up to the high lake and get to work. I assured
her I wouldn't mind if she dropped the children off at her mother's,
not because I felt uncomfortable with the children, but because
I wanted an opportunity to get to know their mother better. Rachel
told me that the grandmother Graham referred to was her ex-mother
in law, letting me know that she wasn't married.
Ruth Wando asked if I were Rachel's boyfriend, and I could have
told her that I wouldn't mind BEING the boyfriend, but I had
the feeling that the woman wouldn't take kindly to any man who
tried to take her son's place in that family. Besides, I wasn't
there to become involved, I was there to check the volcano. I
kept telling myself that. But the more time I spent with Rachel
and those children, the harder it was to remember. Even when
Ruth invited herself and the children along on the trek up to
the high lake, I managed to take it in stride. While the children
were exploring with their grandmother and her dog, Ruffie, Rachel
seemed content to remain with me, watching me as I took readings
of the lake water's acidity. "Like a pool man," she
observed, and I had agreed, hoping she didn't notice my concern
over the 3.49 reading I got. It was too high. And there were
several pine trees on the far side of the lake that were dead,
possibly from the winter storms, according to Rachel.
She seemed to sense something of my worry, because she asked
if there was a problem. I told her no, that 98 percent of the
checks I did a year were false alarms.
"What about the other two percent?" she asked.
"Let's put it this way. You wouldn't have to worry about
moving up on that best places to live list."
We stopped at Twonset Hot Springs for Ruth and the children to
go swimming, and again Rachel remained with me as I studied the
area. A scream from Lauren sent us racing down to find two dead
squirrels, at which time Ruth said that she'd seen several. The
children dressed for their swim, and I found myself examining
the springs, seeing the water bubble as if boiling. Something
wasn't right, and I stopped Graham just as he would have jumped
into the water. At the same moment, Lauren screamed upon seeing
the scalded bodies of two young people which had been hidden
by the steam from the scalding water.
I called Paul, reporting what I'd found: high acidity in the
lake water, enough carbon dioxide to kill wildlife and trees,
and two people dead. I suggested that he send the team up to
investigate further, and then told Rachel that she needed to
call a city council meeting to consider placing the town on alert.
That mountain was going to go up. I could feel it, was certain
of it. And I wanted to make sure everyone had plenty of time
to get out before it did.
At the meeting, I discovered that the majority of the council
was more concerned about the possibility of an investor pulling
out of the town than in saving the lives of the citizens. I couldn't
give them a definate timeline of when the mountain would blow-
and that only served to make the aforementioned group more resistant
to the idea of an alert. Rachel calmed them all down, suggesting
that they at least look at the evacuation plan. We were doing
that, discussing the matter, and Rachel was just calling for
a vote when Paul entered the room. When I told him what was going
on, he pulled me aside, pointing out that there were any number
of reasons for what had happened at the hot springs, and then
told the council that an alert would be premature, that there
was no hard evidence of a possible eruption. I was furious -
not that he'd made me look like a fear monger, but because I
was so certain that something wasn't right with that mountain.
That the town should have been on alert. Paul told me to take
my vacation, and I went back to my motel room, intending to pack
and get the hell out of Dante's Peak.
But I couldn't. I kept remembering Rachel, and Graham, and Lauren,
and knew that I couldn't run out, couldn't simply leave Dante's
Peak to its fate. So instead I went to the local bar and had
a couple of drinks before Paul and the rest of the team- which
included my old student, Nancy, along with Terry Furlong, Greg
Jones, and Stan Takei- came in for a drink as well. Paul saw
me and asked why I was still there instead of fishing. I told
him, said that the town was in trouble, and that I was the best
man he had on the site.
Paul had agreed with that assessment, but said that I still had
to learn that there were politics and economics to be considered
in those type of situations. He said I could stay, but that if
there were anymore council meetings called, it would be his decision.
The next morning, I went to see Rachel, to apologize for causing
her any trouble. She offered me coffee, then began a litany of
choices. I asked for just coffee, and was asking what else was
good when she accidently poured hot coffee on my hand. I said
I'd deserved it for blowing her chances for re-election, and
then she asked me if I liked eggplant parmesan.
"For breakfast?" I asked.
"For dinner. I'm inviting you to dinner. To say thank you."
"Thanking me for what?"
"For saving Graham's life. And - for caring."
"It's a date," I told her.
Paul hired a local helicopter to take Terry and me up inside
the volcano to take readings. We found nothing. The mountain
was quiet- but I still didn't believe it. Something in my gut
kept insisting that she was only waiting us out, keeping us guessing.
And that the moment we let down our guard, she would go.
Dinner at Rachel's was an enjoyable experience. Graham seemed
on his best behaviour, and every time I looked at Lauren, I could
see what her mother must have looked like at that age. After
dinner, Rachel and I sat on the front porch as she told me how
much she loved Dante's Peak, that she'd grown up there, gone
to school -
"Got married?" I asked, curious about the man who had
left this woman and her two wonderful children.
"Yeah. Brian," Rachel said, sighing heavily, telling
me that they had been just kids, that she hadn't heard from him
in six years, and that she didn't think even Ruth knew where
her son was. I wasn't surprised when she asked me if I'd ever
been married. I said no, knowing what the next question would
be: Why not? I gave her the standard line about the travel, about
it not being ideal for settling down. Then she asked the question
I dreaded. "Ever come close?"
I picked up my glass of wine. "Yes," I responded, then
Rachel smiled that little crooked smile that I had already learned
meant she was uncertain. "Touchy subject." I knew I
could drop it, but I found myself telling her about Marianne,
about her death. I'd never told anyone about her before, and
I wasn't certain why it was so important that I tell Rachel now.
Uncomfortable, I looked up at the mountain, told her that if
it went, if it did a Mount St. Helens, the blast would get there
within a minute.
"I hope you're wrong about our mountain, Harry," she
had told me. "But if you're not, I'm glad you're here."
So was I. I just hoped her faith in me wasn't misplaced.
The next morning, Rachel brought coffee for everyone on the crew,
something she started doing every morning. On the second morning
of our stay, she watched us set up a robot that Terry had built,
that we had dubbed "spider-legs". It was supposed to
go into the volcano's crater, taking gas and temperature readings
so that we wouldn't have to go ourselves. It malfunctioned, and
Terry decided that the problem was the added weight of a transmitter
box that we were testing for NASA. He removed the box - an electronic
low frequency transmitter, ELF, for short - after insisting that
all of us turn our heads so as not to see what he was doing.
Terry and I took spiderlegs up the mountain, and for a few minutes
the robot worked well - then it stopped moving, and Terry decided
to go down to it, while I anchored him on the rope. He got to
the metal monster and kicked it, Terry's response to everything
has always been to kick it if it didn't work, and when that failed,
he decided to go off rope so he could get around better. I warned
him not to, as did the others back at homebase, listening in
and watching on video. But Terry was determined, it seemed, to
redeem himself and get spiderlegs back into running condition.
He had barely gone off rope when I felt a ground tremor- and
the rocks began to fall toward Terry, knocking over spiderlegs
and apparently burying him. I forced myself to stay calm, reporting
that Terry was down and that I was going in after him as soon
as the quake subsided. All I could see was Charlie, buried under
all of that rubble, and until I heard Terry's voice, calling
me, I fully expected the worst. Terry had a broken leg, and several
bruises, and I used the radio to have Paul call in the chopper
to get us out. I found out later that the pilot had demanded
more money before he agreed to rescue us.
Watching Terry put into the ambulance, I told Paul that the quakes
had been magmatic, not tectonic, and very shallow. Paul insisted
that they hadn't been, and said that we would know more in forty
eight hours, suggested that I calm down. I didn't want to calm
down. I was still had the feeling that this mountain meant business
- and I had to find someway to convince Paul of that fact, to
get him to listen to his gut instincts again, and not simply
readouts from the equipment.
Terry was fine, and while Paul was reporting the accident to
USGS, I asked the others to help me convince Paul that he needed
to take the situation more seriously, to put the town on alert.
It was then I discovered that they agreed with Paul, that there
was no sign of anything serious going on.
A week later, there had still been no sign of anything happening,
and Paul decided it was time to pack up shop, that we could watch
the mountain from Vancouver. I asked for another couple of days,
certain that he was making a mistake- but he insisted that we
would leave the next morning. I had no choice but to agree. We
went to the local hangout for the evening, and as I was playing
pool with Greg, I happened to look up and find Rachel sitting
at the bar, watching me. I missed the shot, lost twenty dollars
to Greg, and went over to sit beside Rachel.
I had to admit that she was part of the reason I didn't want
to leave Dante's Peak. I'd had dinner with her and her kids four
times, each time finding myself relaxing as I hadn't in years,
and I wanted to find some way to continue the blossoming relationship.
I asked if she ever got to Portland, and she said no, that she
was too busy. So I asked what she did for fun. From the moment
I'd met her, all I had ever seen her do was work, either in the
store, or taking care of her kids, or being mayor.
"Fun?" she'd asked. "What's fun? Oh, I know. That's
something you have when you don't have two kids, a business,
and a town to run." She had laughed, but I could see the
frustration beneath that laughter. Paul came up, having had a
few extra drinks to celebrate leaving, thanking Rachel for her
town's hospitality, saying she no doubt wouldn't be sorry to
see us go. He left to go pack, and Rachel decided it was time
to get home, to let her babysitter go for the evening.
On the walk across the bridge from town, to the spot where Rachel's
store and house was located, she told me that she wished I was
staying- and I knew she wasn't talking about the mountain. She
wanted to be with me as much I wanted to be with her. To get
to know each other better. I very nearly kissed her, but one
of the council members drove by, and we continued on to the store.
I had made up my mind that I was going to take my two weeks vacation
here, in Dante's Peak. I would tell Paul in the morning that
I was staying. He wouldn't like it, but I had a right to spend
that time anywhere I wanted to. And I wanted to stay there, with
Rachel, with her children, to be there for them when the mountain
decided it was ready to go.
Rachel sent the babysitter on her way, then came back into the
kitchen, obviously nervous, and said she could make some coffee.
I put my arm around her, pulling her close. "No, Rachel.
No coffee. Thanks."
"I still think I should make some coffee," she insisted.
"I don't know how to tell you this, Rachel, but I've never
really liked your coffee," I told her softly, smiling at
She relaxed, putting her arms around my neck, and I knew she
wanted me as much I wanted her. "I- haven't been with anyone
in- a long time," she told me hesitantly.
"Neither have I," I confessed. "But you know what
they say. It's like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how, you
never forget." I was about to kiss her, something I'd wanted
to do for days, when Lauren's voice came from upstairs, asking
her mother for a glass of water.
Rachel broke away to get it, telling me that she thought Lauren
would go back to sleep. As she placed the glass beneath the faucet,
I heard her say a prayer to that effect, then she stopped. "What's
wrong with the water?" she asked, turning to show me the
red, muddy water. "Must be a broken pipe?"
I felt a chill to the center of my being as I smelled the water,
recognizing that smell from too many years of experience. "Where's
the town's water supply?" I asked her, explaining that it
could well be the beginning of an eruption sequence. Rachel woke
the kids and we put them into her truck so she could drive me
up the mountain to the town's well site.
As soon as we entered the room, I knew we were in trouble. The
smell of sulfur dioxide was strong, stronger than it had been
before Mt. Pinatuba had erupted. Rachel drove me directly to
the motel, where I woke Paul and showed him what I'd found, using
a glass of water from his bath.
By daybreak, the signs were beginning to point to an eruption,
but I couldn't tell how soon, or how severe. Paul had been on
the telephone for hours and told us that the National Guard wouldn't
be there for another day. He told me to call Rachel and get the
town put on alert while he called the FAA to reroute air traffic
out of the area. I resisted the urge to remind Paul that I had
wanted to call an alert a week earlier, and made the call, hoping
that we hadn't waited too late.
Rachel made an announcement via the small, local tv station,
telling the citizens of Dante's Peak that there was a possible
danger from the mountain, and that they were all asked to come
to a meeting that evening in the high school gymnasium to discuss
plans for evacuation . I could already feel the panic, the fear,
building in the little town. It was almost a living thing, and
I knew how quickly it could turn on a town. Every time I looked
up at the mountain, everytime I looked at the readings, I said
a silent prayer that she would wait, give us time to get everyone
out, before blowing her top.
Rachel called Ruth, telling her what was happening, asking her
to come down the mountain, to leave with her and the children.
But Ruth said no, that she wouldn't leave. I even tried to talk
to her, but she hung up, after insisting that she wouldn't leave
her mountain, that it wouldn't hurt her. Rachel and I left for
the meeting, telling Graham and Lauren to pack a bag so we could
leave when we returned.
I could feel the fear in the crowd of people below the podium.
They were frightened, uncertain, and ready for one spark to set
off the powder keg. It came in the form of a slight tremor, and
then another, stronger one. I remained at the microphone, as
did the sheriff, calling for calm, asking them to move toward
the exits in an orderly fashion. I saw a man go down, and knew
he would be trampled to death in the mad rush to escape the building.
I jumped down, hoping Rachel was following, pulling the man to
his feet. We were carried along with the crowd to the doors,
then outside, where I looked up at the mountain- only to have
my worst fears realized. The mountain was going. And there was
nothing we could do to stop it. We made it to the truck, and
started toward the bridge to get Graham and Lauren, then I planned
to come back and help Paul and the others pack out. I called
on the handheld radio to tell them that, and Paul apologized
for not listening to me sooner. I decided that it still wasn't
the time for "I told you so"s and started trying to
find a way through the town, dodging falling buildings, downed
powerlines and other vehicles. Never once did I think about sending
Rachel on her way alone and helping Paul and the team, leaving
her to get back to her kids and out of town by herself.
As we neared the store, Rachel realized that her truck was gone,
and inside we found a note from Lauren, saying that she and Graham
had gone to convince their grandmother to come down the mountain.
The quakes were more frequent, and the clouds from the mountain
had begun to set up a static charge, lighting the area with eerie
bolts of lightning. There was no way across the packed, one lane
bridge back toward the town- and the mountain, so I took the
truck into the river. I knew it would handle it, that as long
as we maintained traction, we could get across and back into
town. But the truck became stuck in the rocky bottom of the river,
and as I tried to work it loose, we noticed other vehicles had
seen our attempt and started trying to cross the river from the
town side. They couldn't make it, but there was no way I could
Rachel drew my attention to a car that was coming toward us,
and I realized that if it hit us, it might break us free. I pulled
her away from the door and as soon as the car rammed the side
of my truck, I put the vehicle into gear and drove it out of
the water. The gasoline station on the road just before the bridge
exploded, and as Rachel and I wound our way back through the
side streets to the road up the mountain, I knew that this town
was never going to recover, and looking at Rachel's frightened
face, saw that she was realizing the same thing. On the outside
of town, as I peered through the thickening ash that had begun
to fall like a dirty snow a helicopter came out of nowhere, plowing
into the ash, and for a terrifying moment, I thought it would
hit us. But it bounced once, over the truck, then fell again,
crashing into some buildings and bursting into flames. I called
it in to Greg on the radio, then told them that Rachel and I
were going up the mountain to get her kids. Greg and Terry both
said I didn't have enough time, that the mountain was ready to
go. I turned off the radio, knowing that Rachel didn't need to
hear that, and knowing that it wouldn't make any difference.
I was going to find Lauren and Graham, and I was going to get
them off of that mountain if it was the last thing I ever did.
Rachel was becoming more distraught and frightened with each
moment that passed, worrying about the kids, about how they could
possibly have made it safely to Ruth's, when I could barely see
the road with the extra lights on my truck. Rachel's truck was
smaller, with only the standard headlights. We dodged boulders,
trees, and rocks on the drive up the mountain, until Rachel looked
back to discover what I already knew: the road was gone. Our
only way down the mountain to safety was closed to us.
When we arrived at the lodge, the house was empty and dark, and
there was no sign of Graham, Lauren, or Ruth. Rachel's truck
was still parked in the drive, however, so at least they had
gotten this far. As we called, the three of them appeared from
behind the house, saying that Ruffie had run away. Rachel gave
the children a hug as they apologized, Lauren saying that it
had been her idea to come up as well as it had been Graham's.
Rachel glared at Ruth, who hung back as we entered the cabin.
Inside, she told us to take the kids and go, but Rachel told
her that the road was gone, covered by a landslide. I suggested
that the two of them go pack a few things for Ruth, then called
Paul on the radio, telling him that we were at Mirror Lake. Paul
said that he'd send the chopper to rescue us as soon as he could,
but I knew he didn't have that kind of time. I told him to get
out, not to wait for me. His response was garbled, so I repeated
myself, only to discover that the radio was dead. The battery
was gone. I turned it off, giving Lauren a hug as I put it down.
No reason to carry it along, I decided. I heard Rachel and Ruth
talking upstairs, and realized I was sweating. It was hot- and
getting hotter. "Rachel, Ruth, come along. We have to go."
As they came downstairs, Ruth would have said something to Rachel,
but the wall behind us began to glow bright red and suddenly
the wall was on fire, lava running into the house. I pushed everyone
out of the building, only to find the trucks surrounded by the
molten rock, unreachable and usuable. Rachel grabbed the kids,
pushing them toward the lake and the small metal boat that Ruth
kept for fishing. We got into the craft and I got the engine
started as the house caught fully. Ruth buried her head in her
Graham called our attention to the fact that the fish were dead-
and for a few minutes everyone pointed their flashlights into
the water. My attention was caught by something inside the boat.
The metal was hot, and was beginning to smoke. Graham would have
reached out to touch to water, as if to see how hot it was, when
I stopped him, telling them all to put their feet up, to keep
them off of the bottom of the boat. The volcanic activity had
turned the lakewater into acid.
"And acid eats metal," Rachel said, her expression
asking me what we were going to do.
Lauren asked if the boat were going to sink, and I tried to reassure
her that we'd make it across before that happened, but she was
still shivering, frightened, as she sat beside me, my arm around
her. Graham pulled out his smoky quartz crystal, and held it
out to his sister, offering it to her. I wasn't certain that
I had told Lauren the truth. The other side of the lake seemed
awfully distant, and the level of water was rising steadily.
Hoping to divert the children's attention, I started singing
"Row, Row, Row your Boat", my eyes sending a message
to Rachel to take up the round. Before long, all five of us were
singing loudly, as if the noise would drown out the fear we were
all feeling. Then the engine stopped, and I pulled it up, thinking
that the prop had become caught on something- but there was no
propellor left. The acid had eaten away at the moving metal,
leaving only the shaft. I had to do something, so I sent Lauren
up to sit with her grandmother, and took off my jacket, wrapping
it around my hand to protect it from the acid, and began to use
it as a paddle. The boat moved slightly, but not enough. I knew
it wouldn't be enough. Rachel tried to start the motor, in hopes
of providing SOME forward momentum, but it refused to start.
Graham began to panic as the water came closer to the benches
where we were seated. Realizing that the coat was becoming soaked
through, I managed to unwind it from my hand, then dropped it
into the lake as Ruth made sure Lauren was safe before jumping
over the side into the water. I went forward to try and grab
her back into the boat, but she pulled us in to the dock, then
staggered, screaming toward shore as I got Rachel and the children
onto the dock and to safety. Ruth collapsed into my arms, whimpering,
in great pain from the acid burns that covered most of her body.
Rachel told the children to give us some room, but they were
too concerned for their grandmother to listen, so I asked Graham
to take his sister away for a moment, to take care of Lauren.
He moved off, and Rachel told Ruth that we'd get her down, that
she was going to be all right, then went to comfort the kids,
leaving me holding Ruth's shaking, battered body, praying to
God for a miracle that would get us all off the mountain. Rachel
came back a few minutes later to see how she was doing.
"She's unconcious. We can't stay here, Rachel," I told
her. It wasn't safe. The lake might keep the lava from us, but
there were other dangers. And I wanted to get off of the mountain
itself before the top of the thing blew off.
"There's a ranger station about seven miles from here,"
"Seven miles. That's quite a hike."
"I know. And we don't have any way to carry Ruth,"
I almost told her that Ruth wouldn't make it, that she was too
badly burned- but I couldn't. Ruth had sacrificed herself to
save all of us. If there was any way to get her to help, I'd
have to try. "Get the kids." I bent to lift Ruth's
body across my shoulders, and we set out for the ranger's station.
- Ruth was in and out of conciousness
during the first five miles of the hike, alternating between
begging me to stop and put her down and soft sobbing.
After the dimmed sunrise, I put her down, needing a break as
much as she did, then stepped back as Rachel and the children
circled around her. I'd smelled the stench of death before, and
I could smell it now. Ruth was dying, and there was nothing I
could do for her. She and Rachel talked, Rachel apologizing for
never giving Ruth a chance after Brian left, Ruth for Brian having
been foolish enough to leave in the first place. Lauren offered
Ruth her crystal, but Ruth turned it down, telling her to keep
it for her own luck. Graham begged Ruth to hang on, that it was
only two miles to the station, but Ruth had nothing left. She
was in pain, tired, and she said she needed to stay on her mountain.
It was the last thing she said. I stood there, watching Rachel,
Lauren, Graham grieve for the woman, remembering her courage,
and I promised myself that I'd get Ruth's family off the mountain.
Rachel looked up and saw me standing there, looking up the mountain,
and there was another slight tremor, and we could see more ash
coming from the top. So she wiped Lauren's tears. "We have
to go, kids," she said quietly. "There's nothing more
we can do for Grandma now."
I lifted Lauren onto my back. "Let's see if we can find
a truck at the ranger station," I said, leading the way.
It seemed forever before Graham pointed ahead of us through the
ash that had begun to fall heavily again. "There it is!"
I put Lauren down and found that the chain link fence had buckled
in one of the quakes, giving us access to the station- and there
was indeed a pickup truck sitting there. It was unlocked, but
no keys, so I hot wired the ignition and we got into the truck.
I knew we would make it back to town with transportation- if
we could find a passable route.
We were lucky until halfway back to town when we came up on a
lava field. The blackened rock was still hot, still dangerous.
But there was no way around. We had to go through. Rachel put
the kids in the back seat of the double cab truck and I backed
up to get a good run - Immediately, I knew we might be in trouble.
I'd driven over cooling lava before, and knew that the tires
wouldn't handle it. They blew within seconds, the rubber melting,
burning. Suddenly the truck stopped moving, one of the tires
in a pit of hot molten rock. I refused to believe I'd gotten
them that far only to be stopped. Graham saw more lava coming
down the mountain toward us, and I redoubled my efforts- and
they paid off as the truck began to move forward again. Graham
spotted Ruffie on a nearby rock formation, and Rachel climbed
through the back window, calling the animal, urging her to jump
into the truck. When she did, we cleared the lava flow with inches
to spare, and I pointed the truck toward toward town. Even with
four flat tires, I knew we would make it, and smiled.
We pulled into what was left of Dante's Peak to find it deserted,
everything covered in a dirty blanket of ash. Rachel talked about
how much of a struggle it had been to get the town on its feet,
to get it where it had been just a week ago, with a bright future
ahead. Now, it was a ghost town. A ghost town that I knew we
had to get out of as soon as possible. If the mountain followed
the same path as others before it, we didn't have much time.
As I approached the river, I knew we had another problem. The
only bridge out of town was gone- as was Rachel's house that
had been on the other side. Both had been washed away when the
river rose rapidly due to the melting snow from the mountain.
There was only one other place that I thought safe- but the question
was, did we have the time to get there?
I drove back into town, to the motel conference room, hoping
that Paul and the others had left just one peice of equipment.
They had left everything, it seemed, and I realized that they
hadn't been gone very long- the portable generator was still
operating. I found the ELF easily, and picked it up before pausing
to turn on one of the computers. What it showed wasn't good.
The final blast was imminent, and I tapped the screen. "Wait,"
I pleaded softly. "Wait."
Returning to the truck with ELF, Rachel asked why I'd gotten
it. I told her it might come in handy, then we started off again.
Rachel seemed to sense my urgency, because she looked back at
the mountain with worried eyes. Suddenly it seemed as if the
entire world exploded. I glanced back, but I didn't have to.
Rachel and the children turned, and saw the cloud moving rapidly
toward the town. "What is that, Mom?" Graham asked.
Rachel turned to me. "What is that?"
"THAT is a pyroclastic cloud," I told her grimly. I
could see it in the rear view mirror now, rolling, red clouds
of fire mixed with the black, its force destroying everything
in its path. "Don't look back," I warned. "Whatever
you do, don't look back!" The cloud was gaining, and I pressed
full on the gas, hoping to beat it. I could feel it, pressing
down on us as I saw the entrance to the mine and told the kids
to get down. I heard Rachel screaming as we hit the thin metal
doors and broke through, hurtling into the tunnel as the cloud
wreaked havoc outside and everything went dark.
When I opened my eyes, I looked around, hearing soft moans as
the kids moved around. We had to get out of the truck before
the roof collapsed, so I began to kick at the windshield as Rachel
woke up and turned to the children, making certain they were
all right before lifting them out of the front of the truck to
me. Rachel came next, then Ruffie followed, barely missing being
hit on the head by a rock. I told Graham to show us the way to
his hide out, and we followed his lead to the main room of the
Graham lit a lantern, handed out flashlights and told us that
he had drinks, chips and crackers stashed in the cave. I inspected
the walls of the small room, checked the floor. The walls were
still solid, no signs of cracking. And there was very little
debris on the floor itself. The room was as stable as I had hoped
it would be. We would be safe here until they came for us - But
they wouldn't come. I'd left ELF in the truck, and told them
so, explaining that I hoped that it would alert someone that
we were down there, and decided to go and get the box. Graham
wanted to come with me, but I told him to stay there, to take
care of his mother and sister, then started back into the tunnel.
Lauren was frightened that we'd never get out, and Rachel tried
to comfort her. Turning back, I pulled Graham to the floor beside
me, and asked if they had ever gone deep sea fishing. When they
said no, I told them that when we got out - and we WOULD get
out - that we'd go to Florida and get a boat, and stock it with
all the nicest, yummiest things we could think of, and then go
catch ourselves a big, fat fish. Graham and Rachel smiled, agreeing,
and I told them I'd be right back with ELF.
Not ten feet into the tunnel, there was another tremor, and the
roof behind me came crashing down, blocking my return path back
to Rachel and the kids. A rock struck a glancing blow to my left
hand, but I continued on down the tunnel.. I decided the best
thing to do was to get to the truck and retrieve ELF, then I
could dig my way back toward Rachel. I could see the lights from
the truck, shining down the tunnel, and started toward it, when
the unstable roof began to fall in again, and this time a beam
fell on my left arm. The pain was excruciating, and as I lay
on my back, I lifted my arm, shining the flashlight in that direction,
the beam revealing a peice of bone jutting from the skin.
For one moment, I considered just giving up, letting the mountain
take me. But the memory of Rachel's face, of Lauren's, of Graham,
and the knowledge that they were counting on me forced me to
get painfully to my feet and move the last few yards to the truck.
As I slid into the front seat, rocks fell heavily on the hood,
blocking any chance of getting out. And the roof began to groan
ominously. I reached down to find ELF, only to freeze as the
tunnel's full weight fell on the roof of the truck, breaking
the rear side glass, leaving me precious little space. I waited
until the roof of the truck stopped moving toward me, then managed
to wedge myself between it and the seat to reach the yellow box
that I hoped would save the lives of Rachel and the children,
if not mine. Clearing the rocks away, I pressed the switch, listening
for the regular beep that would tell me that unit was transmitting.
Nothing. I flipped it again. Still nothing. Angry that I had
come back for a box that didn't even work, I lifted my leg and
began to kick the thing. Suddenly the steady beeping came, and
I laid back. They'd find them now. Rachel and the kids would
I turned off the flashlight, and started to close my eyes, only
to open them again as I realized that I couldn't give up. That
if they found me here, they might not go farther into the cave,
might never know that Rachel, Lauren and Graham were trapped
down there. I had to stay alive to let whoever rescued me know
I wondered what was happening outside. If the cloud had disappated
yet, how much damage it had done. I remembered the scene at Mount
St. Helens. It had looked like an atomic bomb had gone off, destroying
everything in its path, twisting metal into unrecognizable shapes
- God, I hope Rachel and the kids hadn't tried to follow me into
the tunnel and become caught in that cave in. If we get out of
this, I thought, I'm never going to let any of them out of my
sight ever again. I turned on the flashlight to look at my watch,
only to find that it was broken, damaged when I'd broken my arm.
The flashlight batteries gave out finally, leaving me in a darkness
broken only by the dim, flashing light on the ELF unit. I noticed
that the space between the doors was high enough for me to get
through, so I slipped into the back seat of the truck, pushing
rocks and debris to the floor. I had more room now, but the effort
exhausted my reserves and I must have drifted in and out of conciousness,
because several times I thought I heard Rachel or Graham's voices
not far away, and I wanted to call to them, to tell them it was
all right, but I wasn't certain that I'd really heard them at
all or if they'd been part of my nightmares of that trip up the
mountain, or the boat ride across the lake, or the transversing
of the lava bed.
How long had it been, I wondered. How long could I last without
food, water. I couldn't feel my arm anymore, thank goodness.
It was numb. Of course, that probably wasn't a good sign. I heard
rocks moving,and froze again, fearful of another quake. I hadn't
felt one in what seemed ages, but- I had no idea how long that
had been. Anywhere from hours to days- Another sound- the rocks
were moving- being taken away-
"Dr. Dalton?" A voice called. "Harry Dalton?"
"I'm here!" I called out. "There are others- back
in the mine-"
"We'll get them as soon as we get you out, Dr. Dalton,"
the voice said as the rocks continued to be moved. "Shouldn't
be long now."
"How long have I been here?" I wanted to know.
"Two days. Do you have any injuries?"
"My left arm is broken," I said. "Don't worry
about me. Just get Rachel and the kids-"
A fine dust fell as the final rocks were moved from the driver's
side of the truck, letting light into the cab. It was dark again,
and I looked up to see a dark haired man smiling down at me.
He was wearing a paramedic uniform. Workers slipped past him
to start clearing the rubble from around the truck. Air hoses
were put in place, and I was given a bottle of water and a splint
was put on my arm. "We'll have you out in soon, Dr. Dalton.
We have to get you out so we can move the truck before we can
go farther into the tunnel."
It seemed forever before the paramedic, who identified himself
as Sam, told me they were ready to get me out, and started to
call for some help. "Just give me a hand," I told him,
almost regretting the words as every muscle in my body ached
from two days of non-use.
At last I was free, walking unsteadily up the slope that I driven
the truck down two days before, a blanket over my shoulders.
I was still telling Sam that they had to get to Rachel and the
children when I heard Greg Jones' voice calling my name. I was
glad to see him, and Terry, Stan, Nancy, but my first words to
them were that Rachel and the children were still in there- and
then I noticed that someone was missing. "Where's Paul?"
"He didn't make it," Stan told me.
"But at least he got to see the show," Terry commented.
So Paul hadn't made it. I'd had my disagreements with him, but
he'd been a friend, someone I never thought would have been taken
by nature's vaguaries. I thought of his wife, Marge, wondering
what her reaction would be, then I thought of Rachel.
They gave the word that they were going to move the truck from
the mine tunnel so they could try to reach Rachel and the children,
and as I moved closer, followed by the paramedic, Stan, Greg,
Terry, and Nancy, I said a silent prayer, promising that if she
were all right, I'd never want to see another volcano again.
It seemed an eternity before the call came back that there were
survivors, and I held my breath, waiting, watching.
When I saw Graham leading Ruffie on a rope, followed by Lauren
and Rachel, my knees very nearly gave out, I was so relieved.
I could tell Graham was surprised by the number of people, his
eyes searching the crowd until I called his name, drawing his
attention. When he and Lauren reached me, I wanted to hug them
so tight, to never let them go ever again. And I could see that
they felt the same way, especially Lauren.
Then I looked up and met Rachel's eyes, saw her approaching slowly,
steadily, tears in her eyes. I wanted nothing more than to run
to her, to hold her- but I couldn't move. So I smiled, hoping
she could read everything I wanted to tell her in that expression.
How much I admired her, how glad I was that she was alive, how
much I loved her. Her answering smile almost made everything
we'd gone through worthwhile, and she ran toward us, holding
me as tightly as I was trying to hold her, kissing me as I was
kissing her, not caring that the children were watching, that
we had an audience of hundreds- perhaps more, considering the
media. When the kiss ended, I brought the children back into
the circle, feeling that I'd finally found what I'd been searching
for, what I'd been waiting for all of my life. A family of my
Rachel and the children were cursorily checked out be the paramedics,
and I told my friends that I would see them later before getting
into the helicopter that was to take us to the hosipital in Portland.
Graham asked if I had meant it about going fishing in Florida,
and I told him I had. I wanted to tell him that I didn't care
where we went, as long as we were together. Rachel seemed to
understand. She reached out her hand and clasped mine, holding
on tightly, as if I were some kind of lifeline. I know she certainly
was- and is , and always will be -mine.
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