Mount St. Helens in October 2010. Photo by Flickr user GoToVan.
May 18, 1980, was a beautiful day in Montana’s capital city of Helena. I vaguely recall that I had a pretty quiet Sunday at home, appreciating the time off because as the youngest staffer at The Associated Press bureau in town, I often worked weekends.
It was a relaxing day. I didn’t listen to the news – not that there was much news available on a Sunday in Montana in the days before the CNN and its rivals, and decades before the internet and Twitter.
I distinctly remember taking a walk with a friend as the day drew toward evening. Instead of the usual Rocky Mountain sunset we noticed a low, dark cloud approaching ominously from the Continental Divide. We remarked that neither of us had heard forecasts of any impending blizzards. (Blizzards in the middle of May are a thing, and not a very unusual one, in that part of the world.)
Within a half-hour, I realized that this was no ordinary blizzard. Fine flakes of gritty gray ash began settling over the city, coating lawns and cars, and kicking up a throat-closing fog as vehicles moved through town. Streets seemed to be suddenly shrouded in a dusty mist. Whatever this was, it was an obvious call to duty to a young journalist. Besides, I was the AP bureau’s resident weather buff. Without waiting to be called, I headed to the office.
My colleague on duty that night was thrilled to see me. In the teletype room, the wires had been chattering all day with news of the devastating eruption – “explosion” is really the more accurate term – of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. There had been an undetermined number of fatalities. (Later counts totaled 57 deaths.) Huge swaths of forest were leveled, and a wall of mud and ash barreled down the Toutle River. A mushroom cloud of volcanic debris soared nearly 80,000 feet into the heavens – more than twice the height at which passenger jets regularly flew in that era. Ash had been falling all afternoon, inches deep already in central Washington, where the biggest and heaviest particles landed.
Our sleepy bureau was not part of the story until the cloud crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and reached my college town of Missoula, 120 miles west of Helena. Then the phones began ringing off the hook with reports from puzzled police, swamped sheriffs and frightened citizens. I took over the instantly created “volcano desk” while my colleague handled the rest of the work on that shift. We called our bureau chief, who came down to help out as well.
The story was like none other any of us had ever covered, and unlike any I would later report as my career took me back to the East Coast (before I eventually traded journalism for the excitement and glamour of public accounting and personal financial planning). But of course every volcano-related disaster brings back the memories. Most recently, this happened with the tragedy at New Zealand’s White Island, or Whakaari, where at least 18 visitors and guides lost their lives in a sudden eruption earlier this month.
The tragedy at Mount St. Helens surpassed anything of its kind the United States had seen since Europeans first arrived, and nobody was really prepared for it. But the eruption itself had hardly been a surprise. The mountain was long recognized as an active volcano, one of a chain of beautiful snow-clad peaks that dot the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. When locals in the region want to say “it’s a nice day,” they often use the phrase “the mountain is out.” In Seattle the mountain in question is Mount Rainier; in Portland, Oregon, it is Mount Hood. Mount St. Helens stands between the two, the first volcano you reach traveling north from the Columbia River.
In March 1980, scientists noticed an upsurge in seismic activity at Mount St. Helens, indicating that magma was on the move deep within the mountain’s heart. That activity continued with increasing force and frequency as spring crept up the hillsides from the lowlands. Residents within a 10-mile “red zone” were warned to leave, and authorities advised tourists and sports enthusiasts to stay away, even as researchers flocked to the slopes and nearby ridgetops to study the exotic spectacle happening right here at home.
Not everyone left. I had been reading for weeks about campground owner Harry R. Truman, a crusty and colorful octogenarian who refused to leave his home on the shore of beautiful Spirit Lake. When the end came, both Truman and the lake were buried far beneath the rubble.
David Johnston was a volcanologist for the U.S. Geological Service. He was camped on a ridge six miles north of the volcano – a safe distance, people thought – on that Sunday morning. His instruments picked up a tremor registering 5.1 on the Richter scale at 8:32 a.m. Pacific time. Johnston radioed his colleagues, “This is it!” It was his last message to reach the outside world. The mountain exploded on its north side at exactly that time, and Johnston’s ridge was directly in the path of the blast.
Humans have always had a close yet uneasy relationship with volcanoes. Twenty years after I covered the Mount St. Helens fallout story in Montana, I took my family to visit the ruins of Pompeii, the Roman city that was entombed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Nobody ever forgets the sight of people encrusted in congealed ash who were going about their everyday lives, just as we do, until one day their world ended. What people do often forget – because of the power of hindsight – is that those people were the last of many generations to live in that place before Vesuvius destroyed it, and that many more generations took their place atop the ruins once the living memory of their tragedy had faded. Volcanoes and earthquakes are features of life on earth. We don’t avoid places that are subject to them, even though we periodically pay a steep price for using those patches of ground.
Hindsight is already at work in the discussions about New Zealand’s tragedy. Police are investigating the deaths “on behalf of the coroner,” noting that it is too early to say whether authorities will launch a criminal probe. (Earlier reports incorrectly said a criminal investigation was already underway.) Years-old advertisements promoting trips to the actively volcanic island have found new life on the internet, and past travelers are recounting their visits to Whakaari.
One point they make is that they were fully apprised of the risks. Active volcanoes are dangerous places. There are many scattered around the world, from Iceland to the South Pacific, and they all attract visitors. Most also have permanent residents nearby.
You can visit Mount St. Helens itself. It is now a “National Volcanic Monument.” I went there in 1994, when nature was just starting to reclaim the slopes. By now the process of restoring the forests and landscape, including a reborn Spirit Lake, is much further along. Maybe I’ll get around to visiting again to check on its progress on some future trip to the area.
Life itself can be a risky business. We all make our own calculations about which risks are worth taking. Of course we should do what is practical to reduce risks when we can – nobody would want to revert to the aviation safety standards of 50 years ago, for example. But we play team sports, climb mountains, scuba dive onto reefs and wrecks, parachute from perfectly functional airplanes and yes, even visit volcanoes. We deem these experiences worth the hazards, even if those hazards sometimes turn deadly.
I hope the New Zealanders will avoid looking for scapegoats for the tragedy at White Island, foreseeable as it was. What happened there was a consequence of nature, human nature included.