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Reliving the Mount St. Helens eruption


There was a certain uneasiness in the Northwest air back in May 1980, a date that would go down in the history books and bring international attention to the Pacific Northwest for all the wrong reasons. The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18 is like those where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot kind of moments – most people living in the Northwest back then can probably tell you precisely where they were and what they were doing.

We’re no exception. Now, 30 years later, our recollections are just as vivid as they were immediately following the event. One reason is that the actual eruption was just part of the story and was followed by weeks of breathless reporting by a national news media obsessed with how this life-changing event had impacted the Pacific Northwest and its population.

News reports leading up to the eruption had everyone a little on edge with scientists strongly hinting that all the signs were there – it was quite possible, even likely that Washington’s long dormant volcano, Mount St. Helens, would erupt soon. Anyone paying the slightest attention to the news had to realize that there was potential danger lurking just on the horizon. For several weeks leading up the eruption, the mountain had been releasing plumes of smoke and gasses and, on April 1, the first harmonic tremor was recorded. The countdown to the major eruption was intensifying.

Yet vacationers and weekenders still took camping trips into the general vicinity of the mountain and there developed almost a circus atmosphere where certain vantage points many miles from the mountain were over-run by hundreds of volcano-watchers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mountain’s impending eruption. The plumes seen thus far seemed relatively harmless, floating off into the sky and, for most people, it was difficult to imagine the destruction that would soon come to Southwest Washington.

Perhaps the most famous example of someone who just didn’t realize what was coming was the old mountain man himself, Harry Truman, who was refusing to evacuate his Mount St. Helens Lodge, located at just about Ground Zero for any potential cataclysmic activity. He was warned repeatedly of the potential danger ahead and his obstinacy was becoming a regular feature on local TV and in newspapers. The Longview Daily News quoted Harry as saying: “I think the whole damn thing is over-exaggerated…Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens are my life…You couldn’t pull me out with a mule team.”

Our travels that weekend took us north of Seattle where we were enjoying the use of a rented motor home touring beautiful Whidbey Island with friends. We spent the night at the South Whidbey State Park and enjoyed beachcombing and barbecues that Saturday afternoon that, as I recall, was a gorgeous blue-sky day. We retired for the evening not knowing we were just hours away from experiencing one of the most notable natural disasters in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

We awakened early to a bright, calm day and were just cooking up breakfast in our motor home when, at 8:32 a.m., we heard a bomb go off – or so we thought. If you plotted our location on a map and measured the distance to the volcano, it would be about 100 miles. Yet the sound we heard sounded and felt to me as if the military had just dropped a 500-pound bomb on a nearby hill. A friend who was with us had just stepped outside the camper to take his daughter to see some nearby cows when he remembers he heard “the sound of rolling thunder, or a sonic boom, came up from the south. It was eerie. I thought maybe World War III had started.”

It took just a few seconds for us to put two and two together: With all the talk about how the St. Helens eruption was imminent, that’s really the only thing it could be. Yet no one had prepared us for this blast that we had experienced. Somehow we didn’t have it pictured in our minds that the eruption, when it came, would make this kind of sound. And since we were so far from the volcano, we still couldn’t quite believe that we were hearing an eruption that was 100 miles away.

It was a gorgeous Sunday and we were reluctant to leave the island but we were all due back at work on Monday. As we packed up and headed south to our home south of Seattle, the radio airwaves were crackling with live news reports as reporters rushed to the scene by car and by helicopter and frantically called in their on-the-scene descriptions of the devastation. Once we got home, we were seeing TV reports of news people caught in ash clouds, unable to see or navigate. Almost everyone, it seemed, had been surprised at just how destructive this eruption had been.

In all, 57 people died because of the eruption that day, including Harry Truman. The volcano’s magma had burst forth creating a large pyroclastic flow that flattened buildings and vegetation over a total area of more than 230 square miles. Volcanic mudflows stretched many miles down the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers destroying bridges and lumber camps. The famous video of houses floating down the muddy rivers is just as clear in my mind today as it was on the TV back then.

During the eruption, a huge ash column grew to a height of 12 miles above the expanding crater in less than 10 minutes. The ash continued to spew into the atmosphere for 10 straight hours and strong high-altitude winds carried this ash east-northeasterly to Yakima and Spokane where several inches of ash fell on homes, cars, streets – everything. The sun was obscured by the ash, plunging cities in to darkness within minutes of the eruption.

Since we were to the northwest of the eruption, our three-hour trip home that Sunday was relative uneventful – until we too experienced some of the ash falling in Southeast King County, albeit to a lesser degree than cities in Eastern Washington. Since we were reporting for a Seattle-area newspaper, the eruption of Mount St. Helens turned out to be much more than a one-day event. Our entire newsroom sprang into action that Sunday night and, for several weeks after that, focused on one of the biggest stories in Pacific Northwest history. We had witnessed an event that few people get to experience in their lifetime, and now it was up to our news staff to record every impact, every reaction, and every story that had an angle related to Mount St. Helens.

When they talk about a “slow news day” they most definitely were not talking about Sunday, May 18, 1980 in the Pacific Northwest.

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