National Geographic : 2010 May
EDITOR'S NOTE PHOTO: CHRIS JOHNS, SEATTLE TIMES Retired logger Ralph Killian searched in May 1981 for his son, lost after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. In 1981, nearly a year after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, I flew over a monochromatic landscape littered with the shattered trunks of old-growth firs. Before the deadly event that killed 57 people, this had been one of the most beautiful mountains in the Cascades. Afterward, it was a gaping hole breathing plumes of steam. A colleague from the Seattle Times and I were looking for Ralph Killian, a man on a mission. We spotted him, digging in a tangle of trees (above). He had the weathered look of someone who had spent most of his 61 years working the timberland of the Pacific Northwest. Over the past year Ralph had been searching for the remains of his son, John, and daughter-in-law, Christy, who had been camping in the area at the time of the eruption. "A lot of people would just try to forget about it," he said when we landed to interview him. "We go on living. Have to. But we can't just forget that easy. I've got to know what happened." Ralph had accepted the deaths of his loved ones long ago. But he still wanted to fill in the details of that day. In a bittersweet ending, he did recover his daughter-in-law's remains though not those of his son. Science helps us understand many things: We can track a hurricane and measure a tsunami's wall of water. But some things are beyond the dissecting lens of science. An aching heart, for one.