Witnesses recount devastation after Mount St. Helens eruption
It was a quiet Sunday morning, at 8:32 a.m., 38 years ago when Mount St. Helens blew its top, sending tons of ash into the sky.
The volcano had been quiet since the 1850s, but in 1980, geologists were observing volcanic action in the Northwest.
“I remember in the mid-70s, Mount Baker was active for a while. They thought Mount Baker might erupt and they shut down the National Forest for awhile in 1975,” said local historian Feliks Banel.
Related: Washington’s volcanoes
In the spring of 1980 they shut down what they called “the red zone,” surrounding Mount St. Helens.
“It was fairly controversial because there were people that had vacation homes there, people trying to do logging operations, some people ignored it. They didn’t enforce it really strictly,” Banel said.
Fifty-seven people perished in one of Washington’s largest natural disasters. Some of them were never recovered. But some of those most memorable still left their mark on St. Helens before the 1980 eruption, Banel told KIRO Radio.
There was a network of Ham Radio operators who had been helping the United States Geological Survey keep track of what was happening on the mountain.
“There’s a recording of a gentlemen that witnessed the eruption happening,” Banel said. “Jerry Martin didn’t survive, but a recording of him was preserved, with rumbling of the mountain almost overwhelming one of his last transmissions warning of the mountain’s imminent eruption.”
As a World War I veteran who refused to leave his home, Harry Truman is an iconic victim of the eruption.
“I remember the Northwest in the 1970s — there were guys like Harry Truman all over the place. Every lodge, every forest, every river had a guy like Harry Truman — he just happened to be doomed to be in the place where the (eruption) was coming,” Banel said. “He refused to leave. He was a perfect character, perfect for television.”
There are several interviews with Truman in the weeks before Mount St. Helens erupted where he talked with TV and radio stations, and newspaper reporters. In one interview, you can hear the player piano in his Spirit Lake Lodge. In another he says, “If I left and I lost this place, I’d die in a week. I couldn’t live. I couldn’t stand it. So I’m like that old captain, I’m going down with the ship. If this damn thing takes this mountain I’m going down with it. I’d rather be dead than to live without it.”
“He’s a folk hero. Like he said, he went down with the ship,” Banel said.
The body of the 83-year-old was never recovered, and no one would ever step in the gorgeous lodge where he had lived, again. He lived in the lodge with his 16 cats until the end. It’s believed Truman was covered by 150 feet deep of mud and the pyroclastic flows.
“The one thing there is not a recording of but I wish there was was the young geologist David Johnston. He was 30 years old, working for the U.S. Geological Survey. He was the government face of the mountain those few months leading up to the eruption,” Banel said.
The last thing they heard was the call, ‘Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!'”
He saw the eruption, he announced it to the base station in Vancouver, and then he was gone within seconds. According to Banel, there was a very short period of time between his final call and the mountain exploding.
David Johnston is the namesake for Johnston Ridge Observatory, the visitors center on Mount St. Helens. It’s there that his trailer was found after the eruption. Johnston’s body was never recovered.
Dave Crocket was a 28-year-old TV photographer. He said he had a feeling something terrible was going to happen and he just wanted to be at the mountain that day. He was about 10 miles southwest of what’s now the crater as he had his camera going. You can hear him saying, “My god, this is hell. I just can’t describe it. It’s pitch black. This is hell on earth.”
“At one point, he thinks he’s not going to make it because it’s dark when he’s covered in the ash cloud,” Banel explained. “But eventually, he finds a lighter moment.”
He said, “I can’t see a thing. I keep walking, if only I could do something. If only I could do something instead of just sitting here,” he said. Crocket then laughed, “I got the wrong attitude here, it’s got be something to tell my grandkids about.”
Mount St. Helens is still an active mountain, and is one of seven mountains in Washington state that the USGS observes for potential volcanic activity.