Of all the Mount St. Helens eruption lookback stories I wrote for The Daily News, I like this 25th anniversary one the best because it digs into a mystery. People have taken it for granted that 57 people died in the eruption. Actually, we only know for sure that 36 people died because their remains were found. There are an additional 21 who are missing and presumed dead, including Harry Truman and others whom we know for sure were there.. Of those 21, only two — Paul Hiatt and Doug Thayer — might not even have been there at all.
After this story ran, I got a call from someone who thought that Paul Hiatt might be a relative of his whom they thought had gone to the mountain, but then he turned up. False alarm. The caller wouldn’t leave his name because he was too embarrassed, and we couldn’t write stories if sources wouldn’t go on the record.

Mountain Mystery: Some wonder if fewer people died in 1980 eruption
(originally published April 22, 2005)

By Leslie Slape
The Daily News
     The names Paul Hiatt and Doug Thayer are etched on plaques at Hoffstadt Bluffs and Johnston Ridge honoring the 57 victims of the May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens eruption.
     But these men might not have even been at the volcano that day.
     Hiatt and Thayer are the mystery men of St. Helens, their origins obscured more thickly than a sky darkened by volcanic ash.
     “Those two guys in particular, I really question whether they even existed, especially with nobody ever inquiring again,” said Mike Nichols, who as a sheriff’s deputy led numerous search expeditions into the blast zone. “They could be phantoms.”
     So who were they, and how did their names get on the list?
     In the first 48 hours after the blast, Red Cross volunteers fielded more than 3,400 calls. Many callers provided names of possible victims just in case their loved ones had been at Mount St. Helens.
     “Anybody on vacation or even in the Northwest was reported as a victim of the volcano just because they didn’t answer their phone,” Nichols said.
     “When they got a report of a missing person they made cards of whatever information was given to them,” said Lori Hendrickson of the DEM, who still has the original cards. “Nothing says how they got that information, whether it was phoned in or what.”
     Thayer’s name made the list because a “Mrs. Al Canharn of Clatskanie” thought that Thayer might have been fishing on the Toutle River, Hendrickson said. The card also indicates that Thayer left his home in the Olympia area about six months earlier.
     Whoever added Hiatt to the list of missing people did not provide his age, hometown or anything else, Hendrickson said.
     “I haven’t got a thing on him except his name and ‘Toutle area.’ That’s it,” she said.
Nichols said such vague information wasn’t sufficient to mount a search party for either man.
     “We didn’t know where to look,” he said.
     Nichols, the county coroner, finds it significant that Hiatt and Thayer are the only two volcano victims for whom presumptive death certificates have not been issued.
     “What that means to me, as the coroner, is that nobody ever asked for one,” he said. “Somebody has to want one, to close the estate or whatever. Most families, regardless if there’s money involved, want proof. They want to say, ‘There’s my cousin Joe, he died at Mount St. Helens but they never found his body.’ Nobody asked in those cases. You wonder if they even existed.”
     Thayer’s city of residence is unclear. Hendrickson said the original card reads “Olympia area,” but when the list was updated in April 1983, the city was changed to Kelso. She said there’s nothing in the file box that explains the reason for the change.

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