As millions of people recover from hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, Venus Dergan has a good idea of what they are going through.
Dergan is a survivor herself — on May 8, 1980 she was swept more than a mile downstream by a mudslide caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. She is featured in the first installment of a new Smithsonian Channel series called “Make it out Alive” detailing survival stories of people caught in natural and man-made disasters.
Dergan said it has been “kind of an emotional rollercoaster” watching news coverage of recent hurricanes. It takes her back to 1980, when she and her then-boyfriend Roald Reitan decided to go camping along the south fork of the Toutle River. Dergan was 20 and Reitan was 19.
In hindsight, everyone always asks why they were camping so close to an active volcano, but the “red zone” the government had set up only stretched five miles. They were more than 30 miles away from the mountain.
“We couldn’t even see it,” Dergan said.
She and Reitan could tell something was wrong, however, when they woke up Sunday morning to the distant sound of evacuation sirens in the tiny town of Toutle, and the much closer sound of the river rising up to meet their tent. They looked outside to see an entire train trestle moving slowly toward them, pushed by a massive wall of mud building up behind it.
“We thought, ‘We’d better get out of here,’” Dergan said.
They hopped out of the tent barefoot, pulled it up by its stakes, threw the whole mess in the back of the pickup truck and jumped in.
The truck wouldn’t start.
There was no time to fix it. Water started flooding into the cab almost immediately, and Dergan and Reitan scrambled back out and onto the roof of the cab, hoping against hope that the truck would be tall enough to save them. Instead, they were thrown from their perch as the roiling mudslide slammed into them, tumbling the truck in with the trees and other wreckage being carried downstream.
“I was struggling to keep my head above the mud and debris and he was on top, screaming at me to hold on,” Dergan said. “I couldn’t see him but he grabbed my hand and pulled me up on a log.”
The couple were swept more than a mile before they were able to work their way out of the mudstream and onto solid land. Dergan had a broken wrist, injured leg and severe lacerations, and Reitan was injured too. They limped together through the woods until they came to a bridge blocked by law enforcement and department of transportation workers. They shouted up for help and then waited for a helicopter to airlift them up and out of the disaster zone.
Dergan’s physical injuries healed — slowly, with the help of surgeries and physical therapy and recuperation at her parents’ house. But the mental effects have lingered.
Those effects aren’t all bad. Dergan said she does not take her life for granted, and wakes up each day grateful she wasn’t one of the 58 people who did lose their lives to the volcano.
“It changes your life,” she said. “When you’re 20 you think you’re immortal, but I got my mortality slapped in my face that day.”
She will forever be grateful to Reitan, whom she credits with saving her life. She said she has a much greater respect for the power of nature after seeing the way it snapped man-made structures like twigs that day.
Dergan, who still lives in her hometown of Tacoma, said her friends and family helped greatly with her recovery in the aftermath of the volcano. Some helped take care of things for her while she was laid up, while others provided a shoulder to cry on when she needed it.
She said if people have loved ones who have survived a natural disaster or other death-defying experience it’s important to realize that they might feel fine one day but be struggling the next. Or they may say they’re fine but really need some reassurance.
“Don’t hold anything back,” she said. “Let them know you’re glad they’re there and that you’re there if they need anything. At times they will need someone to lean on as they have a reflective moment or a flashback.”
Talking with other survivors helps too, she said. People affected by disasters this year can find strength in each other and in those who have gone through similar experiences in years past.
“Survivors are strong people,” she said. “The message I would give survivors is this will pass and they will get through it and will be stronger because of it. Life goes on. It may change directions a little but it will go on.”
Dergan’s interview and other Mount St. Helens survivors’ stories will air on the series premiere of “Make it out Alive” on Sunday, Oct. 15 at 9 p.m. on the Smithsonian Channel.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.