Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mount St. Helens eruption: Pilot disputes 'unrivaled view' claim; 'We were as close as you could be and survive'


Earlier this week, with Sunday's 24th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption approaching, Sam Knapp Sr. read The Oregonian's white-knuckle tale of an 11-year-old girl and her father who claimed to fly closer to the mountain than anyone else that day.

Knapp had a problem with the headline declaring, "An unrivaled view of Mount St. Helens." Yes, Tara and Richard Bowen were breathtakingly close to the eruption. Their photos prove it.

But judging from the Bowens' pictures, Knapp says he, his wife and a flight instructor had the father and daughter beat.

Flying over the mountain in the Knapps' Cessna 172 on the morning of May 18, 1980, "we were as close as you could be and survive," Knapp, 81, said. "We were right on top of it."

Knapp said he didn't know how far they had flown into into the red zone until after he saw the photos he snapped. From the sky, it was a disorienting scene. "We didn't change our flight path, but the mountain and billowing cloud of ash overtook us," he said. "It just kept coming toward us."

Knapp's wife, Karen, 60, was taking lessons to get her pilot's license. They were so close to the eruption that she saw dark boulders the size of houses flying into the air. Looking toward earth, the geological blow bent swaths of old growth forest like grass in the wind.

"We didn't realize we were at risk," Karen Knapp said. "Obviously, we were flying too close."

From the back of the plane, Sam Knapp, who already had his pilot's license at the time, snapped a series of photos from the Northwest side of the eruption. He said he didn't go public with the up-close shots until Friday because the instructor asked him not to release them.

"He was worried that he would lose his license because we were so far into the red zone," he said. "But I think enough time has passed." 

The Knapps retired to Santa Rosa, Calif., 25 years ago. At the time, the couple lived in Spanaway, Wash., where they owned a mobile home dealership.

They had just left the ground in the tiny plane when they heard a boom. "It bucked the plane," Karen Knapp said.

After spotting a dark cloud rising up from the Cascade Range, they knew it was Mount St. Helens. The couple had been flying over the peak as it vented ash and steam for more than a year.

"We decided to go investigate," Sam Knapp said.

As they plane and the spiraling cloud converged, the Knapps say they saw dozens of brilliant lightning bolts shooting from the ash's pitch black.

Eventually, as the cloud surrounded the plane and blocked out everything else, they decided to turn around and go home.

Headed back to Spanaway, Sam Knapp said he saw a mudslide rip apart Weyerhauser's Camp Baker site. The moving earth ripped apart a building and toppled stacks of logs, big trucks and yellow forestry equipment as if they were toys.

"That's one of the things that made me realize that this was the big one," he said.

-- Joseph Rose

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