“Within a matter of seconds, perhaps 15 seconds, the whole north side of the summit crater began to move simultaneously. The nature of movement was eerie. The entire mass began to ripple and churn up, without moving laterally. Then the entire north side of the summit began sliding to the north along a deep-seeded plane. We were amazed and excited with the realization that we were watching this landslide of unbelievable proportions. We took pictures of this slide sequence occurring, but before we could snap off more than a few pictures, a huge explosion blasted out…..We neither felt nor heard a thing, even though we were just east of the summit at this time.”
This was the recollection of geologists Keith and Dorothy Stoffel of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens which took place at 8:32 a.m. on today’s date, May 18, in 1980. The Stoffels were flying in a four seat Cessna airplane high enough above the erupting volcano to safely dodge it’s cloud of ash just in the nick of time. Many who were down below were not so lucky.
Mount St. Helens Begins to Rumble, but Harry Truman Remains Defiant
Seismic activity at Mount St. Helens, which lies 96 miles south of Seattle, Washington started on March 16, when 4.2-magnitude tremor was recorded. Activity continued, and between March 23 and 24, there were 174 different tremors recorded. On March 27, the first eruption happened when a 250-foot wide vent opened up on top of the mountain. Ash shot 10,000 feet in the air, and some of this rained down nearly 300 miles away in Spokane. This peculiar rain of ash caused static electricity and lightning bolts. Local authorities issued a hazard watch for a 50-mile radius around the mountain. The National Guard erected road blocks to keep people from getting into the area, but these were easily avoided by using the many unguarded logging roads in that area. Indeed, many logging companies were so reluctant to give up their lucrative logging business in the region, that they kept their men on the job working right up until the day before, issuing devices to measure the ash content in the air to their workers. It was only the fact that the Mountain had the goodness to blow its stack on a Sunday, the loggers day off that saved hundreds of logger’s lives. Many locals simply refused to go. Harry Truman, 84 (below, no relation to the former president)
was one resident who refused to go. “That mountain will never hurt me!” he said, echoing his namesake’s stubborn- ness. “When you live someplace for 50 years, you either know your country, or you’re stupid.”
Harry Truman Gets the Mountain’s Answer
Then the mountain answered Harry’s declaration on May 18 with a sudden 5.1-magnitude earthquake and eruption that shook the mountain, with the entire north side of the peak rippling and blasting out ash at 650 miles per hour, as it literally collapsed in on itself. A cloud of ash, rocks, gas and glacial ice raced down the side of the mountain at 100 mph, and fourteen miles of the Toutle River were buried up to 150 feet deep in the debris. Magma, at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, flowed for miles around the blast zone. The 24-megaton blast wrecked a 230-square-mile area around the mountain. Geologist Dave Johnson, who had been camping out on top of Coldwater Ridge, which was six miles away from the crater and was directly in line with the blast, at the United States Geological Survey (USGS)’s Coldwater II Observation station just barely had enough time to radio in one last report: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” Johnston, his Jeep, his 22 foot trailer, and all of his monitoring equipment were swept away in the volcanic deluge, never to be found.
The Damage Caused to the Region by Mt. St. Helens
Millions of trees were scorched and burned by the hot air alone. When the glacier atop the mountain melted, a massive mudslide wiped out homes and dammed up rivers throughout the area. The plume of ash belched out for nine hours; easterly winds carried it across the state and as far away as Minneapolis, Minnesota. The falling ash clogged carburetors and thousands of motorists were stranded. Within three hours, the plume of ash and pumice had completely blocked out sunlight to over half of the state. Light-activated streetlamps in Spokane and Yakima went on at noon that day, which was thereafter known as “Ash Sunday”. The cloud quickly traveled on the wind, darkening the skies over Idaho and Montana, and arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in two days. In 17 days, it arrived again on the west coast, having circumnavigated the globe. Fifty-seven people died overall from suffocation, burns and other assorted injuries. Twenty-seven bodies were never found. Mount St. Helens went from 9,600 feet high to only 8,300 feet high in a matter of seconds. Harry Truman, whose feisty, though unrelated namesake had survived a predicted political eruption in 1948 to come out on top, had not been nearly so lucky. He had declared himself to be smart enough to know his mountain, but the mountain had the last laugh, as his was one of those whose body was never found.
Above: Mt. St. Helens as she looks today.
But, as devastating as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens was to the area, the blast area provided a one-of-a-kind laboratory on the amazing resilience of Mother Nature in the face of her own fury. The area has recovered much more quickly than scientists had thought it would, and in ways which they never would have guessed. For details on this fascinating story, read my article FORMERLY on “Suite 101”, but dropped from their site for reasons which remain unclear… to me anyway. So for further reading on Mt. St. Helens raed my article on the sister site to “Today in History”.. “Today in History II” =
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“Mount St. Helens” by Rob Carson, Sasquatch Books, Seattle Washington, 1990.