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Mount St. Helens: Memories of a Mountain Explosion

NPR Correspondent Howard Berkes covered the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens and has reported on changes at the volcano since. In an essay for NPR.org, Berkes recalls the massive blast of May 18, 1980, and its aftermath:

The precise moment was marked by a sound, like a supersonic boom. It was 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18th, 1980, and I immediately sensed what happened.

I wasn't sure, though, until I arrived at the radio station, where an old teletype newswire machine clacked away. One report simply began this way: "Awesome."

Mount St. Helens had been shaking and gurgling and spitting ash for two months. I had been to the volcano's flanks, flown over it during small eruptions and stood with scientists in the snow at timberline as the ground shook and ash fell around us. One of the scientists was a young geologist named David Johnston, who later became the government's sentry on a ridge a few miles away. That morning, our caravan of reporters was stopped by Harry Truman, the cantankerous owner of Spirit Lake Lodge, who cursed the mountain -- and the officials trying to get him to leave. He vowed to stay forever.

A few weeks later, the mountain exploded. It blew out sideways, something scientists didn't expect. Superheated gas and rock blasted down river valleys and up and over ridges, toppling forests, scraping earth to bedrock and melting snow and ice. Harry Truman and his Spirit Lake Lodge were buried under 200 feet of mud and rock. David Johnston radioed a final report to geologists gathered in Vancouver, Wash. "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" A few ridges away, a couple watched as Johnston disappeared in a speeding cloud of ash, then raced for their own lives as the cloud headed their way.

The next day, after talking my way past a roadblock, I got my first view of the mountain. The summit was gone. Ash poured out of the new crater, climbing miles into the sky. Blue lightning flashed in the cloud. Downwind, for hundreds of miles, day turned to night. Schools were closed, roads were closed, airports were closed. Burly men bought panty hose to wrap around their carburetors and protect engines from the ash. Facemasks covered mouths. Ash fell like heavy snow.

Downstream, rivers choked with mud, trees and ice blocks as big as houses. A man standing on a bridge scrutinized the buildings floating by, trying to spot his house. Rescuers returned with unbelievable stories. A man found dead, his lungs filled with ash. A car blasted and smashed with no sign of its occupants. Survivors told of days struggling in knee-deep ash, trying to navigate fallen and tangled trees. In all, 57 people died, some in places considered safe.

A few days later, President Jimmy Carter loaded reporters into helicopters for a closer look. Our airborne caravan flew low over the rivers of mud and the decimated forests. We struggled to describe what we saw. But later, standing in mud boots on an airport tarmac, President Carter put it this way. "Somebody said it looked like the moon. But the moon looks like a golf course compared to this."

Years later, some survivors told me they'd thought about that eruption every day since. The couple who saw David Johnston disappear has a living room lined with eruption photographs. Newspaper clippings fill boxes stacked on the floor. Shelves hold bottles of Mount St. Helens liquor and other souvenirs. The placemats on the dining room table show the mountain before May 18, 1980, a perfect cone with a mantle of snow.

I have my own mementoes: a small plastic bag filled with rock, ash and mud; a facemask tainted gray; and a paper shopping bag imprinted with a steaming volcano and tips for surviving an eruption.

I also have, carved into my memory now, the images of Mount St. Helens since. Elk grazing in the river valleys. Toads choking the remains of a lake in a spring mating frenzy. Tourists gazing from the very ridge where David Johnston disappeared. But the smashed and blasted car remains, fenced for protection, a memorial to the May 18 moment some of us can never forget.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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