When things go to hell, people can't relate to statistics or jargon about what's happening. A tragedy requires a face to symbolize the pain and horror, the story of someone whose life is forever changed. Making the story real, showing relevance and hope, takes a personal touch. Journalist Frank Parchman understands this, and in his new book Echoes of Fury: The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Lives It Changed Forever, he gives us the skinny on the Northwest's greatest natural disaster in recent memory through the prism of eight people whose lives took abrupt turns they never imagined for themselves.
That's not to say that Parchman skimps on the facts. In this exhaustively researched book, armed with copious citations, archival photos, numerous interviews and a few personal memories (Parchman was the public relations director at a Portland hospital less than 50 miles from the erupting volcano), a narrative emerges of the events of the ashen Sunday, and how the fallout-physical, scientific and political-affected the lives of the primary characters for the next 20 years and more.
For those who don't remember Mount St. Helens or aren't from around the Northwest, here's a brief rundown: On May 18, 1980, the most famous resident of Washington's Skamania County erupted with tremendous force, literally disintegrating the top 1,300 feet of the mountain in a nine-hour eruptive event that unleashed more than 1,000 times the destructive energy of Hiroshima. Fifty-seven people were killed, and more than 230 square miles of land were devastated. Barometric changes were felt as far away as Las Vegas; the sound of the eruption was heard by Canadians 700 miles away. An estimated 2.4 billion cubic feet of ash and rock blasted skyward in a plume that topped out at 15 miles high.
But Parchman knows the real story isn't in the destruction. The real story lies with Andre Stepankowsky, a reporter with the Longview Daily News, whose detailed coverage of the eruption helped the paper win a Pulitzer and shaped his journalism career. The real story lies with Jim Scymanky, sole survivor of a four-man logging crew, who recovered from severe burns over 47 percent of his body and joined a lawsuit against Washington state and the timber giant Weyerhaeuser, alleging negligence that led to the death of most of the mountain's victims. And the real story lies with Donna Parker, an Oregon electronics worker whose anger over her brother's death and the commonly held view that many of the dead were at fault, took her into an obsessive quest to clear their names.
Parchman's sympathy lies with the people he profiles. The outrage and ongoing pain they feel, particularly Donna Parker, is clearly shared.
Parchman writes his story in a clear, unsentimental style; his journalistic background is very evident. His descriptions of the science behind volcanic studies are concise, and the physical descriptions of the land before and after the eruption are vivid and concrete. While some of the prose in the early pages is surprisingly vague, the narrative momentum is more than strong enough to carry the reader past the few dull stretches. Echoes of Fury may not make for summer escapist reading, but the book stands up as a serious study of a natural disaster and the effects on the people who survived.