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The Mountain Blows Its Top Mount St. Helens, May 18, 1980

 One of the first photos taken of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, at about 10:00 A.M. on May 18, 1980. Oregonian staff photographer Don Wilson took the shot. Leverett G. Richards, an Air Force Reserve pilot and Oregonian staff reporter, flew the aircraft homebased at historic Pearson Airfield. The reporter and photographer flew for hours and hours that day recording some of the most extraordinary experiences of a lifetime.


by Leverett G. Richards

"As we cleared the traffic pattern, I got my first good look at the mountain. 'that's not St. Helens,' I thought out loud. 'where's the rest of it?'"

The whole top of the mountain – 1,377 feet – was gone She was no longer the ermine queen of the Cascades. She was a devil, spouting Hell fire with demonical fury. The black cloud that roared skyward was punctuated by the most violent lightening I had ever seen. Short, sharp jagged flashes of brilliant blue light formed in the ash cloud above the cone and stabbed the earth viciously. Occasionally chunks of white popped up in the black column like popcorn balls. They proved to be fragments of shattered ice from the mountain's many glaciers.

It was about 10:10 A.M. Sunday May 18, a day still vivid in memory. Oregonian photographer Don Wilson, a daring skier, but a white-knuckle flier, and I were shooting the first pictures of the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens.

It all began two months earlier in the newsroom of The Oregonian. Staff writer Jim Kadera sauntered by my desk with a puzzled expression on his face. "The Forest Service says that an earthquake has triggered avalanches on Mount St. Helens," he casually observed. We had a mutual interest in the mountain. He covered the Forest Service beat and I covered the Cascades.

Mount St. Helens, youngest of the chain of dormant volcanoes that make up the Cascade Range, was the most beautiful by far. It was a perfect inverted cone, frequently compared to Japan's Fujiyama. Its symmetrical contours were reflected in the deep blue waters of Spirit Lake at its feet, making it one of the most popular playgrounds in the Northwest.

Our family claimed Mount St. Helens as our own. We made a pilgrimage to our private mountain every summer, starting in the 1930's when we had to ford the Toutle River in our old Chevrolet. We stalled out once in the middle of the stream. Our favorite campgrounds on the south shore of Spirit Lake were full of deep tree wells. An eruption about 500 years ago had buried the forest 20 feet deep in pumice. As the trees rotted away, they left deep holes in the floor of the new forest.

We had scrambled the 17 miles of rugged trails that lead up and over Mount Margaret and clear around the lake and skinny dipped in the icy waters of St. Helens Lake, at the 5,000-foot Coldwater Peak. Our grandchildren had hunted polliwogs in the shallow water of the northeast end of the lake and scrambled up the face of serene Harmony Falls.

We had hiked the trail to the Plains of Abraham on the east side of the mountain marked by the pathsof repeated avalanches which started from the very summit of the mountain and hurtled 9,000 feet down the steep slopes and across the plains a mil or more, leaving desolation in their wake.

Every spring we would hike or climb up to timberline and collect stunted mountain hemlock, western red cedar and pine trees. They made ideal bonsai. Every year we would climb up to the foot of Forsythe Glacier and measure its advancing tongue of ice. We had all climbed the mountain's gentle slopes to the top. R.S. Durkee, my father-in-law, had first climbed it in 1924 when the U.S. Forest Service still maintained a lookout station on top. He climbed it again in 1973 at 72 years of age. I went with him, expecting to carry him off the mountain, but he could have carried me.

We took that earthquake report personally. This was our mountain that was under attack. That report from the ranger at Spirit Lake was the first break in the story of the century, the worst natural disaster in the United States in 123 years. But no one got excited. The city desk kissed it off, commenting that "these avalanches happen all the time." That was Tuesday afternoon March 20, 1980.

A couple of days later I flew around the mountain, 50 airline miles north of Portland, with staff photographer Wes Guderian. We saw and photographed the tracks of massive avalanches in the deep snow that covered the mountain. The city desk brushed them off as unrelated to the earthquakes which were coming faster and with greater magnitude by that time.

Thursday, March 27, I took off with staff photographer Mike Lloyd. We orbited the mountain above the clouds for about an hour waiting for a break in the clouds. We were about to give up when we lucked out. We caught the mountain's first plume of steam and ash streaming off to the west. Word of the first ash eruption provoked a panic among the media and sightseeing pilots. The airspace over the mountain quickly turned into a dog fight. We maintained 1000 feet above the peak and circled counterclockwise. But planes recklessly dived in from all directions to get a look at the widening crater. A twin-engine plane dived under us, barely clearing the peak.

For the next two months I patrolled the mountain with a photographer every week or so, while swarms of earthquakes shook the symmetrical cone like a bowl full of jelly. The north face of the 9,677-foot peak began to crack and sag like the belly of a sumo wrestler.

"Our measurements show that the north face has bulged out nearly 500 feet," Bob Johnston, spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey told me one day in May. "Something has to give."

And give it did. At 8:32 and 25 seconds a.m. Sunday, May 18 all Hell broke loose. Without any warning an earthquake that measured 5.1 on the Richter scale, triggered a massive landslide, releasing a vertical blast that was heard around the world on listening devices designed to record atomic explosions. The blast shot debris into the atmosphere where it circled the earth for months.

I called to reserve an airplane and headed for Vancouver's airport. Pearson Airfield was besieged by television and press teams clamoring for aircraft. Planes were available but not pilots. TV had usurped the plane I had reserved, by 10:10 a.m. I was taking off for the first 2.5-hour flight with Wilson, who wasn't afraid to jump off the top of Mount Hood on skis but was uncomfortable in the air. Only the chance to cover the biggest story of the century overcame his qualms.

The volcano formed its own ominous black cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky. A west wind forced the impenetrable cloud to the east, turning noon to midnight in Yakima, 85 airline miles to the east and obscuring the visibility as far as 220 miles to the east. The Federal Aviation Commission declared a disaster area around the mountain, restricting all planes except rescue aircraft from a 20-mile radius of the mountain. We flew around the mountain under radar control for 2.5 hours, then landed at noon with the first shots of the eruption to go on the [AP]wire.

Staff photographer Bob Ellis was waiting. We refueled and took off, trying to circle the mountain. We got close enough to the west flank of the volcano to see some of the pyroclastic avalanches that distinguished this eruption. The French volcanologists called them nuee ardentes, fiery avalanches. We could see them come zipping out of the crater, speeding down the mountain, riding on a cushion of air at 100 miles an hour or more.

Some of the lateral blasts, hotter than a blast furnace, were clocked at 670 miles an hour. The heat of the lateral blasts killed standing timber as far away as 25 miles northwest of the crater. The Parker family – Donald, Natalie and Richard – lost their lives while camping near Meta Lake, about 9 miles north of the crater by one of the dozen fiery avalanches.

The air was full of chatter from the pilots of the National Guard and Air Force Reserve helicopters. "Spirit Lake has been wiped out," one chopper pilot reported. "I'm over the lake and see nothing but columns of steam." That report went on the wire, but local pilots who knew the area later that day reported getting a glimpse of the lake, obscured by steam. The lake appeared to be boiling.

It was no wonder that pilots were confused. The landscape had been violently altered. Some 150 square miles of timber—220,000 acres – to the north, northwest and northeast had been uprooted, sandblasted and burned to death, destroying 1.6 billion board feet of prime timber; 100 miles of streams; killing 2300 deer, elk and mountain goats; destroying 27 recreation sites; 63 miles of roads; 97 miles of trails and 15 Forest Service buildings worth $134 million.

One cubic mile of the mountain had been ejected, leaving a crater one mile deep and two miles across. The massive landslide had hit the lake at the foot of the mountain forcing water out of the lake up and over a 1500-foot shoulder of the mountain to the north, wiping out the old growth forest in its path and raising the level of the lake by 200 feet. The same landslide, lubricated by water from the lake, swept 17 miles on down the valley of the Toutle River, burying the valley under 160 to 600 feet of volcanic debris.

We cancelled our flight plan, dropped down below the radar screen and followed the Columbia River down to the Cowlitz River. There a freighter, the Hoegh Mascot, with a load of cargo was hard aground in the channel which is normally 40 feet deep. Debris from the volcano had poured 35 miles down the Toutle River into the Cowlitz and into the Columbia trapping 31 draft ships up the Columbia and another 50 stranded at Astoria waiting to come up the river. The Army Corps of Engineers, acting with wartime urgency, had every big pipeline dredge in the West – 28 in all – on the job within hours. They moved 159 million cubic yards of dredging at a cost of about $233 million [about $732 million in 2020]. It was the biggest operation of its kind in the annals of the Army Engineers.

We buzzed up the Cowlitz River to the Toutle River. That normally peaceful trout stream had turned into a raging demon laden with a solid mass of logs and downed timber. We watched in fascination as a small building riding the crest of the flood struck the bridge over the Toutle on Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway. The building was reduced to splinters as it hit the bridge. The railroad bridge over the Toutle, 100 yards further downstream, was piled high with logs and debris. Both bridges were closed to traffic.

We followed the Toutle River upstream to the town of Toutle, 25 airline miles from the mountain. The concrete bridge over the river at the edge of town had vanished. The concrete deck was later found a quarter of a mile downstream, mute testimony to the power of the river, heavy with sand, the consistency of wet concrete. The Toutle schoolyard had been turned into a base of operations for rescue crews. Helicopters were taking off to search for survivors and returned covered with gray dust. Gray dust covered the land for 20 miles north and west of the volcano. Gray was the color of death. Survivors who tried to walk out sank waist deep into the fine powder, floundered and died.

We skirted the area to stay out of the way of helicopters and a few light aircraft then followed remnants of the Spirit Lake Highway on up the ruddy river. We passed 19-Mile Camp, a major Weyerhaeuser logging center. The river had ripped through the maintenance yard, wrecking shop buildings and carrying away logging trucks.

We poked on up the valley under lowering clouds, dodging helicopters and aircraft, to Camp Baker, the main Weyerhaeuser logging camp, terminus of the logging railroad, 17 airline miles from the volcano. The camp buildings had been ripped up; trucks, locomotives and logging cars tossed in heaps like so many toys.

On the upstream edge of the camp we saw what looked like telegraph poles lying side by side in neat rows, pointing upstream. Beyond the camp we saw what looked like a flow of butterscotch pudding. By the time the clouds were getting lower, the visibility was obscured by dust from the mountain and steam from the river and we were busy dodging helicopter traffic.

We turned back. It was not until we saw up-close pictures that we realized we had seen the tongue of the mudflow generated by the mudflow generated by the landslide – the biggest landslide ever recorded in historic times. We saw a few abandoned trucks and cars along what was left of the Spirit Lake Highway, we had no idea how many loggers or weekend campers had been killed by the blast. First reports listed 20 killed and 60 missing. It was a year before the death toll was finally established at 57.

Volcanologists calculated the force of the eruption as "equivalent to a 400-megaton nuclear explosion, one nearly eight times more powerful than that of the largest nuclear device ever detonated." The volcano's sustained energy output might better be compared to an aerial detonation of some 27,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs; nearly one a second, for nine hours.

More than 300 homes were destroyed or damaged by the landslide and debris flows; 12 bridges, several logging camps, fish hatcheries and city water systems were wiped out. Millions of board feet of standing timber, including some of the finest old growth Douglas fir in the West, up to eight feet in diameter, was toppled, stripped of its branches and sandblasted. Final cost in local, state and federal funds was more than $1 billion [in 1980 dollars.]

We landed at Toledo airport a few miles further north, the northern base for rescue operations, where bodies were being taken for autopsies to determine the cause of death. Most had died of inhalation of volcanic dust. We landed back at Pearson Field at 5 PM after logging five hours of flying time.

I had no sooner reached home, hungry and thirsty, than the city desk called to ask me to fly back to Kelso and pick up film from one of the two reporter-photographer teams on the ground. The only plane available was a low-winged clunker not equipped for instrument or night flying. Staff photographer Mike Lloyd joined me on the flight to Kelso on Interstate 5, western base for rescue teams. The sun was setting as we flew past Mount St. Helens. The eruption had finally tapered off after about 10 hours of all-out violence.

The airport was a scene of confusion. Survivors were beginning to come back in by truck and chopper. I approached two survivors who were looking haggard and shocked. They told a harrowing tale of death and desperation.

Bruce Nelson and his girlfriend Sue Ruff had gone camping on the banks of the Green River near Miners Creek in old growth Douglas fir, 14 airline miles north of the volcano, with two other couples. They woke up early that chilly Sunday morning and were huddled around their campfire waiting for their coffee pot to boil. Their friend Terry Crail had been fishing and was just coming back all excited about the big fish that got away. His girl friend Karen Varner was still asleep in their pup tent. Brian Thomas and Dan Balch were just beginning to wake up in their own tent downstream.

Suddenly they became aware of a plume of smoke rising above the valley to the south. "There must be a fire somewhere," Ruff said as she headed back to her tent for a cigarette. Before she could light up, a strong wind whipped up, quickly building up to hurricane force as it whistled through the trees. Then a brutal black cloud roared down on them at express speed, laden with sand and volcanic debris, hissing through the trees.

Crail dived for the red nylon tent where his girlfriend still slept as the black cloud blotted out the camp.

Nelson and Ruff clung together between two forest giants. That saved their lives. Huge trees thundered to the ground in a tangled mass. Their two giant trees were uprooted but formed a roof that protected the two. As the hot wind passed, they found themselves in the dark, trapped beneath the tangled blowdown. "I remember groping around thinking 'My God, Sue, I think we are dead.'"

"We're not dead yet," Sue recalled saying. "Keep digging."

Nelson managed to worm his way out of the tangle of downed trees and shouted for the others in the camping party. But there was no answer. The sky cleared briefly, and they scrambled up the hill behind their camp. Then chunks of rock and ice pellets began to fall and they took shelter.

"If we get out of this alive," Nelson remembers saying, "you're going to marry me." Ruff said she would. By that time the fog had begun to lift and they decided to start walking out.

About that time they heard a shout. It was from Dan Balch and Brian Thomas. Balch had badly burned his hands on a hot tree. His arm, scalp and the back of his neck was also burned. Thomas had a shattered hip that left him helpless. Nelson and Ruff struggled to carry and roll Thomas about 120 feet to what was left of a miner's shack. They built a lean-to out of boards to shelter him and left him there. Thomas hoped that one of them would stay behind with him. Nelson explained that they were unable to carry him out but would send help back for him. And the three took off down the road. Balch soon dropped out, incapable of taking another step. His feet and shins were badly burned from walking in the hot ash in his stocking feet.

Nelson and Ruff continued to walk down the ash-covered road, stopping to pet an elk dazed and covered with ash. About midafternoon they encountered Grant Christens, 59, of Chehalis, who was walking along the same road. He had been with his brother on a ridge above the Green River Valley on his way to recover tools from Camp Baker.

The three walked until dusk and were about to take shelter for the night when they heard a helicopter approaching. They kicked up a cloud of dust to attract the chopper. The pilot spotted them, landed and flew them to the base at Kelso just as the sun was setting.

Thomas and Balch were rescued later by helicopter. Terry Crail and Karen Varner were not so lucky. Nelson accompanied Captain Steve Epperson, USA 9th Infantry helicopter pilot, as they searched for the campsite. The pilot glimpsed a spot of red in the dust-covered blowdown. Cutting a slit in the tent they found Terry and Karen crushed to death by a fallen tree. Crail's dog Tie and her three pups were the only survivors. Nelson took them home.

Our copy aide never showed up with the film from the ground teams. But the sun was setting in the west and we weren't equipped for night flying. I phoned a few notes on Nelson and Ruff's story [to The Oregonian's copy desk] then took off at 7:30 PM. We landed back at Pearson at 8 PM. I logged more than eight hours flying time that day. I was to log another 150 hours in the next 30 days patrolling the mountain and another 1000 hours by the end of the year. Six more explosive eruptions of ash and pumice racked the volcano before it settled down to building a dome about 750 feet high and more than 2000 feet long.

Gradually the earthquakes faded to background levels, the dome quit growing and the volcano ran out of gas, both literally and figuratively. [At this writing in 1996] it has been quiet for more than six years now.

Does this mean the dragon is dead or dying, or is it merely out to lunch? Only time will tell. But the scientists who live with the volcano are not yet ready to write its obituary.

Excerpted from Richards, Leverett G. Elephants Don't Snore: Rose Wind Press, Vancouver, WA, 1996.

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