Remembering the eruption of Mount St. Elens


It was a day that would live in disgrace for Pacific Northwest residents: May 18, 1980, on the day of Louis Helens Peak, Washington's fifth highest peak, blew its peak. Most people living in the Northwest at that time remember exactly where they were and what they were doing.

We are no exception. Now, 30 years later, our memories are as vivid as they were immediately after the event. One of the reasons is that the actual eruption was only part of the story, and was followed by weeks of breathless reports from national media obsessed with how this life-changing event affected the Pacific Northwest and its population.

The news leading to the eruption was all a bit on edge with scientists strongly suggesting that all signs were there – it is possible, even probable, that Washington's long stagnant volcano, Mount St. Petersburg Helens, will erupt soon, Anyone who paying the least attention to the news, he had to realize that potential danger was right on the horizon. A few weeks later, scientists noticed that the mountain was beginning to emit jets of smoke and gas, and then on April 1, the first harmonic tremor was registered. The countdown to the big eruption was increasing.

Still, vacationers and weekends are still making camping trips in the general surroundings of the mountain, and there is an almost circus atmosphere where certain views of many miles from the mountain have been spent by hundreds of volcano watchers hoping to see the mountain. forthcoming eruption. The pluses seen so far seemed relatively harmless, floated up into the sky, and for most people it was difficult to imagine the devastation that would soon come to Southwest Washington.

One example you may remember is Harry Truman, the old man in the mountain who refused to evacuate his Mount St. Helens, located right around Ground Zero, for any potential cataclysmic activity.

He seemed to ignore the warnings of local officials and his refusal to leave the mountain became a storyteller on local television and in Seattle newspapers. Longview daily quoted Harry as saying, "I think the whole damn thing is exaggerated… Spirit Lake and Mount St. Elens are my life … You couldn't get me out with a team of mules."

Our trips this weekend took us north of Seattle, where we enjoyed the use of a rental home surrounding the beautiful Whidbey Island with friends. We stayed at South Widby State Park and enjoyed the beach and barbecue on Saturday afternoon, which as I recall, was a magnificent day with blue skies. We left the evening without knowing that we were just hours away from experiencing one of the most remarkable natural disasters in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

We woke up early to a bright, peaceful day and were about to cook breakfast at our motor home when, at 8:32, we heard a bomb go off – or so we thought. If you map our location and measure the distance to the volcano, it will be about 100 miles. Yet the sound we heard sounded to me and felt 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 cows nearby when he remembered that “the sound of a rolling thunder or a boom came from the south. It was ominous. Maybe the Third World War has started. "

It only took us a few seconds to put together two and two: With all the talk of how the St. Helens eruption was forthcoming, this is really the only thing that can be. And yet, no one had prepared us for the explosion we were experiencing. We somehow hadn't imagined in our minds that the eruption, when it came, would make that kind of sound. And because we were so far away from the volcano, we still couldn't believe we were hearing an eruption that was 100 miles away.

It was a great Sunday and we didn't want to leave the island, but we all had to go back to work on Monday. As we packed up and headed south for our home south of Seattle, the radio waves fluttered with live coverage as reporters rushed to the scene by car and helicopter and frantically called their descriptions of the devastation site. After we got home, we saw television news coverage caught in clouds of ash, unable to see or move. Almost everyone seemed surprised at how devastating this eruption was.

A total of 57 people were killed by the eruption that day, including Harry Truman. Volcanic magma exploded, creating a large pyroclastic stream that leveled buildings and vegetation over a total area of ​​more than 230 square miles. Volcanic mud streams stretched many miles along the Tuttle and Cowitz rivers, destroying bridges and camps. The famous video of houses floating on muddy rivers is as clear in my mind today as it was on TV back then.

During the eruption, a huge column of ash rose 12 miles above the expanding crater in less than 10 minutes. As a whole, the ash plunged into the atmosphere for 10 straight hours and reached cities like Yakima and Spokane, where a few inches of snow accumulated like so much dirty snow in homes, cars, streets – everything. The sun was darkened by the ashes, sinking cities to darkness within minutes of the eruption.

Because we were northwest of the eruption, our three-hour trip home this Sunday was relatively unimpeded – until we also experienced some of the ash falling into Southeast King County, though to a lesser extent than cities in eastern Washington. Since we were reporting a Seattle newspaper, the eruption of Mount Helens in St. Petersburg has proven to be much more than a day-long event. All of our news sprang into action this Sunday night and a few weeks later focused on one of the greatest stories in the history of the Pacific Northwest. We witnessed an event that few people were trying to relive in their lives, and now our news staff was recording every impact, every reaction, and every story that had a St. Elens angle.

When they talk about "slow news day", they are definitely not talking about Sunday, May 18, 1980 in the Pacific Northwest.