Filmmaker dropped in blast zone: 'It felt like death'

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by ALLEN SCHAUFFLER / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on May 18, 2010 at 7:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 18 at 4:34 PM

Some people near Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, survived the initial eruption, but faced epic struggles to escape what's been called "The Death Zone."

One of the survivors was a filmmaker who found himself and his calling on the volcano.

"It changed my life. It really humbled me," said Michael Lienau, who was 20-years-old at the time. Lienau was already a veteran news photographer and was fascinated by the mountain.

"I was drawn there," said Lienau. "I had a sense something big was going to happen there. I didn't know what but I wanted to be a part of it."

A few days after the main eruption, he and a film crew were dropped off by helicopter in the blast zone.

"It felt like death," he recalled. "Everything totally scorched off the trees. There wasn't anything green anywhere."

The film crew got lost, missed their pickup spot, and the mountain erupted again. Hours turned into days and the weather turned.

"The deep ash and the rain had compacted  a one-inch layer of crust. But you break through that, it was still really hot underneath," said Lienau.  "I was wondering if we were ever going to get out of there alive."

He thought he might be documenting his own death. But in that bleak, blasted wilderness, before their rescue, Lienau experienced a spiritual blossoming.

"Mount St. Helens was hell. That was hell to me and I didn't want anything to do with that, so I made my peace with God right there," said Lienau.

Professionally, the mountain, the Cascades and volcanoes in general have remained the center of his life.
  
"I've done three major documentary projects and then dozens of smaller ones," said Lienau.

Lienau, his wife Chari and their nine kids (five of them adopted) live on Camano Island. His old dairy barn doubles as a studio for Global Net Productions and Mount St. Helens is seemingly everywhere.

"For the last 30 years I have been shooting every aspect of changes at Mount St. Helens ever since then," said Lienau.  "So I put together a new disc of just high definition footage of some of the changes that have happened in the last 6-7 years since I've had an HD camera."

Is he obsessed? Lienau says maybe - his wife says yes. And would he go again if another Cascade mountain blew?
 
"If another event starts happening, I will be there with my camera at a safe distance with a telephoto lens," said Lienau, now older and wiser.
 

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