"God gave us a real treat."
That's how Dara McCulley described her view of the Mount St. Helens eruption Sunday which she called "the most magnificent sight I've ever seen. ''
When the mountain blew its top, "smoke and ash rushed out of it in the shape of a huge arm that curled itself into a giant fist.
"Bright orange lightning flashes, some shaped like a skull, sprang from the open gap at its top and she cracked with the sound of falling timber," she said.
Mrs. McCulley, her husband Larry, Joe Findley, Louis Castagna, Cindy Richards and two of their children, all from Richland, believe they are the only "living beings" to have had such an eyeball-to-eyeball glimpse of the erupting mountain.
The group camped Saturday nine miles from. the first ridge on the mountain's east side alongside Clear Creek.
That evening the McCulleys drove several miles up the mountain for a closer look at the bubble on the north side.
"The bubble was pulsating. It was like you could see it breathing in and out," Mrs. McCulley said.
That night the group slept uninterrupted, but Sunday morning "right in the middle of cooking grits and eggs," they felt the earth shake under their feet, heard a rumble, looked above the tree line at the darkened sky and saw what they thought was a huge rain cloud.
"All of a sudden the wind direction changed and Clear Creek began running backward up toward the mountain, and then we knew she'd blown, she said.
They hopped into a van and drove up the mountain another five miles before pulling off at a roadside viewpoint.
"She was blowing and going, like one giant arm pushing out of the earth. The lightning was shooting all around and through her and it was unbelievable, absolutely fantastic.
"We stood there hypnotized under the mountain's giant arm and it was the most awesome sight. Where we were, on the eastside, it was daylight and we could see everything and although the noise was less where we were, we could hear the roar of the thunder.
"We watched her for about 40 minutes and then we saw what we thought was hail or big chunks of ice. But it was mud, ash and rocks and we realized we were in trouble," Mrs. McCulley said.
The group started back the same way it came to camp and quickly threw belongings into the car. They traveled north but turned around because "it was raining rocks." They drove south until the overflowing Muddy River made them halt. They spent nearly two hours driving (town one logging road after another only to be turned back because of downed trees or slimy mud.
Along the way, they were stopped by a Canadian couple who couldn't find their way out of the forested area.
"We were all scared to death, but somehow we managed to get out and finally arrived at Stevenson near the Cascade Locks. The car was covered with ash.
"We could have been killed, we just didn't realize what could happen. There must have been 70 campers in there and not all of them got out."
The McCulleys, who describe themselves as "disaster watchers," have traveled to Mount St. Helens for the past seven weekends to take pictures of the mountain changes.
"However, we were so flabbergasted when she blew that we didn't get one picture," she said. "That mountain was dynamic and I think it was a gift from God that we could see her."