Most people don’t realize that there are between 50 and 60 volcano eruptions around the world each year. Granted, most of them just blow smoke, or at worst, produce a typical lava flow that can be easily tracked.

But every so often, a volcanic eruption will produce the classic mountain top explosion, with ash rain and lava flows that will engulf everything in its path for hundreds of square miles. 

Obviously, the best place to be is as far away as possible when that happens, but predicting when a volcano will erupt violently, or when it will just emit smoke, is a very imprecise science. Yet even the most violent eruptions can be survivable, but you will need special equipment and a lot of luck to get through the worst of it. 

Surviving the Mount St. Helens Eruption 

Jim Scymanky was working in a 4 man logging crew on Mt. St. Helens that day. They were logging outside of a 10 mile exclusion zone that was deemed safe, and were given permits to do just that. Although everyone knew that the mountain was going to erupt, no one knew when or how big the eruption would be. 

When Mt. St. Helens blew, more than 1300 feet at the top of the mountain literally disappeared. The explosion was considered 500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in World War 2, and a full 150 square miles of land was totally devastated. And Jim Scymanky was in the middle of this raging hell. 

Scymanky was suddenly covered in complete darkness and the air had turned to ash. He had no recourse but to breathe it in, and as he explained the situation later, his exact words were, “I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m being buried. The pain is just unbearable,” he recalled recently to MSNBC News.

Scymanky said that the heat was so intense that his cotton gloves melted onto his hands. “You didn’t know where the hell you were,” Scymanky says. “One minute you’ve got landmarks all over – you know where the stream is, where the roads are . . . [but after the blast,] no roads. No streams. No nothing. I mean, just gone. It was like it picked you up and put you on a different planet.” 

He was found by a a National Guard rescue helicopter and transported out of there. Of the 4 man crew who were working that day, he was the only survivor. He vomited and coughed up ash for days, and he was incredibly lucky to have survived.  

Living Through a Volcanic Eruption 

Since most volcanic eruptions are relatively small and confined, the chances of surviving one are good if you have the proper equipment to do so. Obviously, if you are directly in the blast zone, nothing will survive, but if you have time to react, there is a very good chance that you make it out alive. 

  • Move away from the eruption – This might seem like a no-brainer, but many people are caught in volcanic eruptions that they think will be local or confined, and they get trapped as a result. You must treat every eruption like it will be a major one, and always move away as far as you can when an eruption is forthcoming or it has just begun to occur.
  • Have an OSHA Certified Respirator mask ready – These inexpensive respirators will allow you to breathe when the air becomes toxic or ash filled. They have replaceable cartridges that can be replaced when they become clogged, and they can literally be the difference between life and death during a volcanic eruption. 
  • Keep a battery operated radio – You will be able to monitor scientific dispatches from the area even if the power goes out and although determining when a volcano might erupt is not an exact science, the information you get could potentially allow you to escape an eruption when it is imminent.
  • A Civil Defense Emergency – When a Civil Defense emergency is declared, evacuate the area immediately. Do not take chances, do not think you can tough it out. If an actual emergency has been declared, by staying where you are, you will be in grave danger.  

Your Best Chance 

Although we all associate volcanic eruptions with explosions and lava flow, most people succumb to toxic gas emissions or suffocating falling ash. The most important part of surviving a volcano is being able to breathe whi8le you get away from the source. A respirator is your best chance of surviving any volcanic eruption, and they are the best insurance to have when an eruption occurs. 

An erupting volcano 


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