Listen Live

'It Seemed Apocalyptic' 40 Years Ago When Mount St. Helens Erupted

17 hours ago
Originally published on May 18, 2020 8:19 am

I was 150 miles away on May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens blew, but my bed shook and the windows on my Oregon A-frame rattled.

I rushed to my radio station and its clacking Associated Press wire machine and pulled up a pile of wire copy from the floor. The reports coming in from southwest Washington state were hard to believe:

  • A boiling plume of ash rising 15 miles high.
  • The top 1,300 feet of the mountain gone.
  • The north slope blown out with an avalanche of mud, rock and ice burying valleys and racing downstream.
  • A pyroclastic flow of searing hot ash and gas.
  • Mile after mile of Douglas fir forest mowed down like toothpicks.
  • Trees, boulders, logging trucks and houses floating down rivers and smashing into bridges.
  • Ashfall so thick that day turned to night across eastern Washington and into Idaho and Montana.
  • Desperate rescue efforts underway for dozens of missing people.

It seemed apocalyptic.

A closer look

And it looked that way, too, the next morning when I got my first glimpse. A colleague and I talked our way past a police roadblock on the south side of the mountain, and after rounding a turn in the road, we hit the brakes and gasped.

A gray and black plume continued to shoot out of a new crater and miles into a darkened sky. There were eerie flashes of blue lightning in the plume and thick clouds of ash heading northeast.

An aerial view of the Plinian eruption column, Mount St. Helens, on May 18, 1980.
Robert Krimmel / USGS

By then, heavy ashfall closed roads, schools and airports across eastern Washington. Even mail delivery stopped. The ash was blinding for drivers and dangerous if inhaled. It seized the engines of cars and caused a run on pantyhose, which was then wrapped around carburetors and air filters for protection.

None of that compared to what it was like up close and inside that volcanic maelstrom.

And it all began without warning. Despite two months of earthquakes, ashfall and a growing bulge on the north side of the mountain, the night before was quiet. That morning was tranquil. The cone-shaped mountain had a white mantle of snow.

"If there had been an emission [of ash] it would be black," reported Gerry Martin, a ham radio operator stationed on a ridge 8 miles from the summit. Martin was part of a network of volunteers monitoring the mountain for Washington's emergency management agency.

"We'll see what happens today," he said.

"Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it!"

U.S. Geological Survey geologist David Johnston was 2 miles closer. He had a car and camper and was calling in reports to the USGS command post in Vancouver, Wash. The day before, he persuaded visitors from the University of Washington to leave. They wanted to camp with him overnight. "It's too dangerous," he told them.

USGS geologist David A. Johnston with gas-detection equipment.
USGS
David Johnston enters a small crater at the summit of Mount St. Helens prior to the May 18, 1980, catastrophic collapse and eruption.
USGS

Also watching, and reporting via ham radio, were Ty and Marianna Kearney, who heard Gerry Martin's report at 8:32 a.m.

"Now we've got an eruption down here," Martin said through static, his voice calm at first, then growing more and more alarmed. "And now we've got a big slide coming down. The whole ... northwest side is sliding down. And it's coming over the ridge toward me."

Johnston shouted into his radio: "Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it!"

Martin was still reporting and had a clear view of Johnston.

"The camper and the car that's just south of me is covered. It's going to get me, too," he said.

The Kearneys saw that they would be next.

"We're leaving the area. We're leaving the area!" Ty yelled into the radio.

Ty and Marianna Kearney returned to their volcano observation post in August 1980.
Alan Kearney

He and Marianna bolted into their van and hit the gas. They had parked facing downhill and had cleared the dirt road of rocks in case they needed to flee.

"We looked out our van windows," Marianna told me nearly two decades later. "There was nothing but ash and clouds and all of these columns [of ash and smoke]. That was when I felt like, gosh, maybe we won't get out of here."

The Kearneys made it around the southwest side of the mountain, which was shielded from the blast.

"We feel very fortunate to survive and have a clear road," Ty recalled. "Other people, of course, had a really ... bad, rough time out of it."

A body filled with ash

Mike Moore was camped with his wife and two young daughters 13 miles from the mountain. When we spoke in 1999, he had a collection of photographs from that day in 1980. They were all colorless because gray and black ash continued to fall from the sky and covered everything in what was otherwise a verdant green forest.

"Our major color that we saw was our tent when we camped that night after trying about 18 hours to get out, and not being able to make it," Moore said.

The Moores spent that 18 hours trudging through deep ash and climbing up and over massive, fallen trees. There was blinding lightning at times, Moore said, and deafening thunder. They soaked some shirts and wrapped them around their mouths to avoid inhaling ash, which fell like heavy snow.

Still, Moore told me, "Our situation doesn't compare to what other people went through."

The Moores were rescued by searchers in a helicopter. But the falling and blowing ash in the blast zone covered 230 square miles, making it difficult to find everyone who was trapped.

"To me, the most pathetic story was of a gentleman that was in extremely good physical shape," Moore recalled, noting that the man had had the wisdom to wrap himself in a sleeping bag as he tried to hike out.

Before the eruption of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens' elevation was 2,950 meters (9,677 feet).
USGS

"He made it 14 miles before he finally collapsed and went to sleep. And the body was found with his lungs and his trachea and his mouth and his nose just filled with ash."

"It makes the moon look like a golf course"

A few days after the eruption, I climbed into a military helicopter with other reporters. We were part of a flying press corps following Marine One and President Jimmy Carter as he toured the blast zone. It was a struggle to describe what we saw. Rivers were still choked with logs, mud and debris. Pumice piled hundreds of feet deep still emitted clouds of steam. Everything was gray or white, and the trees in mile after mile of leveled forest all pointed in the same direction.

President Carter also struggled to describe it when we landed at a small airport.

"Somebody said it looked like a moonscape, but the moon looks like a golf course compared to what's up there," Carter said, standing on the tarmac in a windbreaker and mud boots.

"The ash is several hundred feet deep. There are tremendous clouds of steam coming up as enormous icebergs as big as a mobile home lie there melting. There's no way to describe it. It's an unbelievable sight."

The eruption's magnitude was also difficult to comprehend:

  • 3.7 billion cubic yards of mountain blasted away.
  • One river valley buried as much as 600 feet deep.
  • 24 megatons of energy released, more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
  • Forests stripped of trees and soil down to bedrock.
  • Enough timber blown down to build 300,000 homes.
  • 27 bridges and 200 homes damaged or destroyed.
  • Ash crossing the U.S. in three days and circling the globe in two weeks.
  • Ground temperatures as high as 1,300 degrees F.

Defining the danger

The death toll reached 57 and included ham radio operator Gerry Martin and USGS geologist David Johnston. All but three of those killed were outside the "red zone" established by Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray. Geologists had pushed for a larger area with mandatory evacuations. But pressure to shrink the danger zone was intense from cabin owners, campers and hikers, and logging companies, including Weyerhaeuser, the timber giant that owned private forests in the area.

Defining a danger zone was tricky because predicting volcanic behavior is elusive. In fact, the timing, magnitude and direction of the May 18 blast defied what geologists had believed based on past behavior of Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes.

The powerful lateral blast didn't fit their understanding of the mountain's past. The power of the blast surprised them. And despite two months of earthquakes, ashfall and a growing bulge on the north flank, the timing of the eruption was a surprise.

"There was no sign that it was going to happen at 8:32 in the morning of May 18," says Seth Moran, the scientist-in-charge at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. "There was no short-term indication. And there had been a lot of optimism that there would be signs" of a cataclysmic eruption.

Debris avalanche deposit from the eruption choked the North Fork Toutle River valley.
USGS

Geologists have since documented similar volcanic behavior at Mount St. Helens and elsewhere. The eruption gave them new information about what to look for in the deposits that eruptions leave behind.

But they still warn that massive eruptions can occur suddenly at Mount St. Helens and other Cascade Mountain volcanoes, including Mount Rainier in Washington and Mount Hood in Oregon. There may be little or no warning of big blasts or catastrophic mud and debris flows. So vulnerable communities have been identified and warned. And remote monitoring networks have been established.

"That's a lesson we certainly learned at Mount St. Helens," Moran says. "It's influencing the putting out [of] instruments on other volcanoes that in some cases haven't erupted in thousands of years. But there's the potential for them to do so if that volcano wakes up."

"Nobody can stop it"

Mount St. Helens and other Cascade volcanoes are expected to wake up eventually. In fact, alerts were high from 2004 to 2008, when earthquakes and ash emissions hit Mount St. Helens again. But eruptions turned out to be relatively minor.

Ty Kearney was philosophical when we spoke in 1999 about the watching and waiting for the next eruption.

"It's something that doesn't happen very often in the lifetime of a human being," Kearney said. "And it's nature. Nobody can stop it."

Howard Berkes covered the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens for NPR and has returned to the volcano for multiple stories over the years. He retired in 2019 after 38 years as an NPR correspondent.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Forty years ago today, the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in Washington state. The blast sent searing hot gas and ash down the mountain at 300 miles per hour. Ash also rose into the sky; so much of it that even hundreds of miles away, day turned into night. Reporter Howard Berkes was there in 1980 and has this look back.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It seemed apocalyptic.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The whole top of the mountain just exploded into one black ball. And it just kept growing and growing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Trees were pushed over like toothpicks.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There are tree falls as much as 15 miles away from the mountain.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mudslides have already created a 20-foot-high wall of water on one river. Evacuations of nearby towns are continuing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: All of the roads in eastern Washington are closed. Schools are closed. Airports are closed.

JIMMY CARTER: Somebody said it looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks like a golf course compared to what's up there.

BERKES: President Jimmy Carter flew over the blast zone a few days later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: The ash is several hundred feet deep. There's tremendous clouds of steam coming up. There's enormous icebergs as big as a mobile home lie there melting. There's no way, I mean, to describe it. It's an unbelievable sight.

BERKES: It happened suddenly on May 18. At 8:32 a.m., Gerry Martin reported by ham radio from a ridge seven miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERRY MARTIN: Now we've got an eruption down here. Now we've got a big slide coming off. The whole west side - northwest side is sliding down. And it's coming up over the ridge towards me. I'm going to back out of here.

BERKES: Martin watched as a geologist on a ridge two miles closer disappeared in an avalanche of ash and smoke. Then Martin's radio went silent. Ty and Marianna Kearney were listening and watching from another ridge. They told me in 1999 that they sped down narrow dirt roads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARIANNA KEARNEY: We looked out our van windows. There was nothing but ash, clouds and all these columns. That was when I felt like, gosh, maybe we won't get out of here, you know?

TY KEARNEY: We feel very fortunate to survive and have a clear road. And other people, of course, had a really bad rough time out of it.

BERKES: Like Mike Moore, who was camping with his wife and two young daughters 13 miles away. In 1999, Moore showed me photos of a colorless landscape smothered in volcanic ash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIKE MOORE: Our major color that we saw was our tent when we camped that night after trying about 18 hours to get out and not being able to make it.

BERKES: Eighteen hours trudging through deep ash, climbing up and over fallen trees. Still, Moore told me...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOORE: Our situation doesn't compare to what other people went through.

BERKES: Because he and his family were rescued.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOORE: To me, the most pathetic story is of a gentleman that was in extremely good physical shape, and he made it 14 miles before he finally collapsed and went to sleep. And the body was found with his lungs and his trachea and his mouth and his nose just filled with ash.

BERKES: In all, 57 people died. The timing, magnitude and direction of the eruption surprised geologists. It first blew out sideways with more energy than an atomic bomb. Seth Moran is the chief scientist now at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

SETH MORAN: There was no sign that it was going to happen at 8:32 in the morning of May 18. There was no short-term indication, and there had been a lot of optimism that there would be signs. And so it was actually pretty devastating in the days following that folks were thinking that they had missed something.

BERKES: They hadn't according to their data. So they have to be ready for sudden eruptions with little warning at Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes. Vulnerable communities have been identified and warned. And there's more monitoring now.

MORAN: That's a lesson that we certainly learned at Mount St. Helens. And for sure it's influencing the putting out instruments on other volcanoes that, you know, in some cases haven't erupted in thousands of years. But there's the potential for them to do so if that volcano wakes up.

BERKES: Back in 1999, Ty Kearney was philosophical about surviving the 1980 eruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T KEARNEY: It's something that doesn't happen very often in a lifetime of a human being, and it's nature. It's - nobody can stop it.

BERKES: The last big scare at Mount St. Helens began in 2004 and lasted nearly four years. But eruptions were relatively minor. The watching and the waiting continue for the next one.

For NPR News, I'm Howard Berkes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.