The Day We Surrendered Mount St. Helens; The Deadliest Eruption In U.S. History
Skamania County, Washington–Atop a ridge near Mount St. Helens on May 18th, 1980, David A. Johnston trembled with excitement.
Johnston was a volcanologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) team, who’d been keeping vigil on the steaming pot for months. From his data, he was sure the blast was eminent He shot a message to the USGS team…
“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
That was the last anyone heard from him.
It was almost forty years ago, Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in southwestern Washington State spewing steam and ash over 11 miles into the sky. It was the first major eruption since 1857.
The blast killed 57 people, the most deadly volcanic event in U.S. history, changing the state of Washington forever.
Leading up to May, the USGS knew there was to be an eruption. They’d warned the residents around the area, but telling them something was going to happen was like telling the people of California they would sink into the ocean.
It hadn’t happened yet, despite so many tremors, so why should anyone panic? One famous case was Harry Truman (not the president), a long-term, well-known resident who would perish in the blast because he refused to vacate.
“I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my life’s here,” said Truman at the prospect of leaving. “My wife and I, we both vowed years and years ago that we’d never leave Spirit Lake. We loved it. It’s part of me, and I’m part of that mountain. And if it took my place, and I got out of here, I wouldn’t live a week anyway; I wouldn’t live a day, not a day.”
In March of 1980, the USGS set up a new seismological survey array into the Cascades, the range where the volcano lives to this day. They were so sure of an event, they started monitoring activity 24-7.
By the 27th of March, they sent out an official hazard watch. That same day, a column of ash and steam irrupted 6,000 feet into the air above the crater. Fissures opened in two places on the volcano.
In some ways, it was the worst thing that could have happened. There was a blast, but no turmoil, proof that the hill was cranky but not dangerous.
Many ignored it the same way they ignored the increasing number and intensity of tremors, which continued through March and April.
Johnston’s transmission proceeded a stream of data. Moments after he sent it, the ridge where he’d camped wound up in the direct path of the blast, making him one of the 57 casualties along with Harry Truman.
For eight miles, debris scattered northward at supersonic speeds, leaving behind the destruction. Adding to the chaos, a shockwave leveled the surrounding forest for 19 miles, searing the forest beyond.
The total area of destruction was 230 square miles around the cone.
After that first explosion, what remained of the north face of the volcano collapsed, opening up and unleashing the might of the Earth’s depths. Superheated, toxic gases, and magma spewed into the air.
As if that weren’t enough, a second eruption launched vertically over 12-miles into the air, blotting out sunlight as far as Spokane, Washington.
This eruption set off an endless spew of ash, which carried on for nine hours. Our best estimates are that sound 540 million tons of ash flew from St. Helens that day, affecting seven states around Washington.
For the people who did not heed the warnings, they did not suffer even the awareness of their demise.
The effect of the eruption changed the face of Mount St. Helens forever and changed the silhouette of the Cascades in that area. The volcano lost 1,300 feet of elevation.
What it left behind was devastation. It tossed heavy equipment, tractors and logging trucks like toy cars, buried roadways under six feet of ash and earth.
On the north side, a plain of mud buried felled trees, which steamed endlessly after the blast. Anyone who wanted or needed to get close the scorched patch of Earth needed to wear a face mask per the noxious fumes.
Most St. Helens Now
Today, an observatory sits right where Johnston sat, the ridge renamed after him, with floor to ceiling views of the crater. The vegetation around the area, through the blast zone, since 1980 has returned, but nothing of its former glory.
Inside the crater, a baby volcano grows from the ever present magma flow from below.
“The volcano is still living and breathing,” says Stephanie Grocke, a volcanologist from the Smithsonian Institute.
As the magma rises, it cools, filling the crater with a massive amount of rock. It’s so much, the lava that flowed from 2004 to 2008 was enough to pave a road from New York to Oregon, seven lanes wide.
In 2004, tremors from the volcano indicated we might face another one soon, but nothing came of it. Scientists have decades of technological advancements on the year 1980. We now monitor all active volcanos in that range.
The loss of human life should be less next time Helens’ blasts, but the damage could be as bad as ever.