'I got to sit on a cliff and feel the earth move'

Dave Crockett has been to a place that most of us can't even imagine.

He has been to hell on Earth and back again.

For weeks in the spring of 1980, Mount St. Helens had rumbled and burped, and KOMO News crews, including Crockett, were at the mountain covering the story.

But when KOMO decided to pull their crews from the mountain and let their sister station in Portland handle it, Dave was angry.

On May 18 he woke up at 3 a.m. afraid he would miss out on the story of a lifetime, and he knew he had to go.

"Just call it a hunch," he said. "I just had a feeling something was going to happen down there."

When he got there, the side of the mountain collapsed and the massive eruption began.

He was confused at first, then awe-struck, frightened and exhilarated at the same time.

And then the mountain came after him with a churning flood of boulders, trees and mud. There was a wild race through the valley: Crockett in his news car against a 30-foot wall of death.

But there was no outrunning it, so he turned up an old logging road.

"I took a left hand turn, right under us here," Crockett said during a trip back to the mountain last week. "And the road blew out in front of me. I tried to back up and the road behind me was gone."

In the whole valley there was one spot that wasn't destroyed -- one little patch. It was the spot where Crockett's news car came to a stop.

By now, the sky above the Mercury Monarch was a furious, seething vision of rage. Crockett left a note on the hood of the car and took off on foot.

"I want to live so bad!"

Watch Dave's raw video

He began walking uphill, through the steaming mud and ash cloud. He turned on the camera and started to talk as ash turned everything around him to black.

"Dear God, whoever finds this," he says as only a sliver of light is visible. "You can't see this, I'm sure it's too dark, but I left the car behind. As you can tell probably from this picture, I'm walking towards the only light I can see at the top of a ridge."

He maintains a soft voice, but you can sense his desperation as he describes the scene around him while filming.

"I never really thought I'd believe this or say this, but at this moment I honest to God believe I'm dead."

Crockett continues to narrate as the last bit of light disappears. "I can feel the ash now in my eyes. It's getting very hard to breath. I'm having trouble talking."

"This is Hell on Earth I'm walking through."

Crockett's camera was still rolling as the world around him remained dark, and you can hear him call for help on his portable radio.

"Mayday, mayday, mayday. Does anybody copy this unit? This is portable five, mayday, mayday, mayday."

Toward the end of the film Crockett recorded the day of the eruption, he notes positively that while ash is still raining down, it's not getting any harder for him to breathe.

"My god, I never realized how badly I want to live," he said "Oh, I want to live so bad!"

Back to the mountain

Today, Crockett's news car sits behind a roadside cafe called the "19 Mile House." It used to be a tourist attraction, but no one comes to look at it anymore.

Crockett didn't expect to feel anything when he saw it, but he was wrong.

"Poor old girl," he said while checking out the rusted vehicle. "I guess she saved my life."

Thirty years after the eruption, Crockett says he feels privileged to have been so close.

"Even though I came close to losing my life, I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he said. "When I finally realized I had made it and I was going to live, I just started laughing and screaming out loud. I was just yelling at the mountain."

He made it to a cliff and snapped a couple photos, including a wild-eyed self portrait.

Dave's self portrait after the eruption

Has any man ever felt smaller than he did at that moment? A speck of humanity, face to face with belching, spewing fury, it must have felt like he was staring into the angry, gaping maw of God himself.

"When it cleared enough that I could look straight up at the eruption and see how far up it went, it was just so high it was like it went into outer space," Crockett said. "It makes you just feel teeny tiny.

"I had a ringside seat. I got to sit on a cliff and feel the earth move, the earthquakes, and watch the mountain erupt, right there in front of me. The word awesome is overused, but it was awesome. It was just beautiful."

The rest of us are left to wonder, what does it do to a man when the whole world blows up in his face?

"I went through a period of time with nightly dreams, just this feeling of impending doom just rushing in on me in my sleep. But it gets better over time."

Religious fanatics hounded him, and there were random marriage proposals. They all wanted a piece of him and many thought he was touched by God.

He had a tough time -- survivor's guilt, they called it then. Posttraumatic stress disorder is the name we use now.

Crockett says he's past all that now, and so he came to face the mountain again -- to tell it the same thing he told it up on that cliff 30 years ago: "You didn't get me."

He has come to terms with this place, that day and what it meant, and what it didn't mean. The mountain is changed forever, but it's still there. The same goes for Dave Crockett.

"To oversimplify it, I feel... pretty comfortable with the whole thing now. The whole experience."

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