What started as an earthquake at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, became within seconds the world’s biggest ever landslide – and after that, the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in the history of the United States. The Mount St. Helens disaster in Washington State killed 57 people, in fact, and forever changed the lives of thousands more. But only photographs can convey the true terror and devastation that was caused by this horrific event.
When explorer George Vancouver surveyed the Pacific Northwestern United States in the late 1700s, his journey led him to a peak reaching a height of more than 5,000 feet. And he called the geographical highlight Mount St. Helens in honor of his friend – an English diplomat named Lord St. Helens.
However, the mountain that stood before Vancouver wasn’t simply another stunning component of the Cascade Mountains; it boasted a fiery history, too. Mount St. Helens is identified as a stratovolcano, after all, with its steep slope made up of layers of lava, ash and rock fragments that have erupted and cooled over the years.
In fact, in the past half-millennium, Mount St. Helens has erupted on multiple occasions. Most of these incidents came with little fanfare, however. And between 1857 and the late 20th century, the stratovolcano even sat entirely inactive – until the year 1980, that is, when the enormous peak came back to life with a vengeance.
Seismographs began detecting activity around Mount St. Helens in mid-March of that year. Said small quakes suggested that magma may have been starting to shift beneath its surface once again. And sure enough, on March 20 a 4.2-magnitude earthquake on Mount St. Helens’ north side confirmed suspicions that the volcano had indeed awoken from its slumber.
For the next several weeks, those in the Seattle area watched as Mount St. Helens’ warnings grew more and more aggressive. On March 27, for instance, heat from underlying magma created violent blasts of steam – the result of groundwater that had suddenly spiked in temperature. And the power of these explosions formed a 250-foot crater and sent ash flying 7,000 feet into the air.
Even more alarmingly, a second crater caved in two days later, inside which locals could see a blue-colored fire roaring. The flame had probably formed as a result of gases burning within Mount St. Helens – yet another warning of the catastrophe that was to come. Then, ash clouds began billowing down the sides of the warming stratovolcano, creating static electricity and lightning bolts that stretched 2 miles across the sky.
By the start of April, these alarming signs – combined with frequent, more violent earth tremors – led Washington’s then-governor, Dixy Lee Ray, to declare a State of Emergency. And on top of that, she ordered the creation of a prohibited zone around Mount St. Helens. Any individual who encroached on this forbidden area would have to pay a $500 fine – equal about $1,500 today.
Perhaps inevitably, however, not everyone heeded the government’s warning. In fact, one man, Harry R. Truman, became something of a sensation for staying behind in his cabin near Mount St. Helens. Truman was 83 years old when the mountain started threatening to burst, but he showed little fear in the face of danger.
Truman told the Lawrence Journal-World, “I don’t have any idea whether [Mount St. Helens] will blow, but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.” And according to authors Green, Carlson and Myers, the former lodge owner added, “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it.” Plus, Truman reportedly claimed that not even a pack of mules would be able to remove him and his 16 cats with which he shared his home.
However, as Truman continued to stand his ground, the looming sense of disaster only grew. On the north side of Mount St. Helens, for instance, a bulge began to form and bubble outward at a rate of up to 6 feet per day. The mass ballooned to over 400 feet, in fact, and geologists realized that the most immediate threat they faced wasn’t an eruption, but a landslide caused by the swelling earth.
In May Mount St. Helens started erupting again – albeit in smaller, more confined reactions that didn’t include any fiery magma. Spectators still came out to watch as the looming landmark spurted ash, though, and they could likely feel the many rumbles that marked the build-up to the big event. By some tallies, after all, there were nearly 10,000 earthquakes in the months leading up to the main eruption.
On May 16, however, the eruptions stalled, and the number of people drawing in to watch – presumably in both awe and terror – began to dwindle. The next day, officials allowed residents of the forbidden zone around Mount St. Helens to return to their homes and collect as many of their belongings as they could manage. And there was a second expedition of this nature planned for the following morning, Sunday, May 18, at 10:00 a.m.
On the morning of May 18, it at first seemed as though the trip could go off without a hitch. Mount St. Helens showed no drastic change in its activity, after all; there was no increase in bulging earth, no soars in temperature and no more sulfur dioxide shooting from the rock than previously. But this relatively peaceful facade would soon shatter.
That’s because at 8:32 a.m., a magnitude 5.1 earthquake tore through the north slope of Mount St. Helens – so much so that that the bulge broke off and began to slide. And thus began the largest landslide in recorded human history. The tumbling earth rocketed at up to 155 mph towards the base of the volcano and beyond, spilling through the west side of Spirit Lake, towards a 1,150-foot-tall ridge and down into the North Fork Toutle River.
The sheer amount of earth that moved after the earthquake was devastating in and of itself. The landslide left behind a whopping 24 square miles of debris in its rush downward, in fact. But this was only part of the catastrophic destruction that this area would see.
As the earth shifted, you see, it reduced the pressure on the molten rock that had been bubbling away inside Mount St. Helens. And as a result, the magma and pent-up steam burst upwards out of the volcano – just seconds after the bulge had broken to begin the landslide.
Consequently, explosions rocked the tail-end of the landslide, sending the pieces of rushing debris soaring through the air. Hot volcanic ash, gas and pumice flew sideways from Mount St. Helens, while rock on the ground fired forward at up to 670 mph – so rapidly that it may have even breached the speed of sound, in fact.
The volcano’s fiery flow overtook the landslide on its destructive path, completely consuming a stretch of land 23 miles wide and 19 miles long. Devastatingly, the molten rock instantly annihilated 230 square miles of forests. And even more trees that stood miles away from the immediate blast zone were killed as a result of the extreme temperatures from the eruption.
What’s more, as the landslide and lava flow rushed forward, a massive plume of ash rose from Mount St. Helens, reaching 12 miles into the air. The cloud took ten minutes to form, but it lingered over the active volcano for a staggering ten hours. And as the swirling smoke hung there, falling cinders sparked lightning bolts that ignited forest fires below.
Parts of the giant cloud then caved in and plummeted back toward Mount St. Helens. And when this ash combined with the lingering steam, mud and magma that was already present on the mountaintop, the mixture sparked another series of lava flows to rush down the volcano’s sides. Then when these fiery streams met with water or ice along the way, they flash-created steam, breaking the earth below into enormous craters and shooting more ash into the air.
In total, Mount St. Helens erupted for a startling nine hours. And during that time, the volcano emitted around 540 million tons of ash, and the wind helped carry dark flecks across an area of more than 22,000 miles. For example, Yakima, Washington, which sits 90 miles from the blast site, had 4 to 5 inches of ash on the ground by the end of the horrifying ordeal.
In some areas, in fact, including the city of Spokane, WA, so much ash filled the air that the sky turned black at noon. People couldn’t see farther than 10 feet in front of themselves. And as the smoke cloud continued to spread, it dropped its dark debris as far as Yellowstone National Park, Denver, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
What’s more, Mount St. Helens’ eruption of lava and steam managed to melt all of the mountain’s snow and glaciers. The rush of hot water and earth created lahars – or volcanic mudflows – that rushed into three of the mountain’s four streams. Some of these lahars tore down the slopes at 90 miles an hour, in fact, before funneling into the waterways and causing flooding.
It comes as little surprise, then, that the Mount St. Helens eruption is the most damaging and deadly volcanic blast in the history of the continental U.S. As many as 200 homes, 185 miles of highway and 15 miles of train tracks succumbed to the fire, landslides, ash and floods, after all. Tragically, 57 people lost their lives in the midst of the natural disaster, too.
One individual who is presumed to have died as a result of the devastation is Truman. The landslide and the subsequent fiery flow of volcanic material had spread across Spirit Lake, you see, where the 83-year-old had lived in his cabin. And while authorities never found Truman’s remains, they did report that 150 feet of debris had ended up engulfing his property that fateful day.
Like Truman, volcanologist David Johnson was someone who chose to remain in the vicinity of Mount St. Helens, as his work kept him at the U.S. Geological Survey’s base near the volcano. Two months before the eruption, Johnson had helmed a radio broadcast in which he had, according to the Daily Express, predicted that the blast “could be within hours, it could be within days or even up to a couple of months.”
What’s more, Johnson had concluded his broadcast with a chilling foreshadowing statement. “This is not a good spot to be standing in,” he’d remarked. And when Mount St. Helens had finally erupted, the volcanologist’s prediction had turned out to be all too true. That’s because in Johnson’s report on that fateful day, he can be heard screaming, “Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it! This is it!” Then, the line goes silent. Johnson’s remains – like Truman’s – have, sadly, never been recovered.
Reid Blackburn’s story is just as tragic. The 27-year-old photojournalist, who had been on assignment with National Geographic, the USGS and The Columbian, had set up camp 8 miles from Mount St. Helens’ north side. Even with that much distance between him and the volcano, though, he had had no time to escape. And emergency personnel found his body in his ash-covered vehicle four days after the eruption.
The deaths of 37-year-old Day Karr and his young sons, Andy and Michael, also made waves. Karr had taken his kids camping nearly 5 miles from Mount St. Helens after his wife, Barbara, had called the U.S. Forest Service to make sure that the location was safe. But in spite of such a confirmation, all three died of ash asphyxiation after the volcano erupted.
It’s worth noting that most of the victims of that fateful day died from asphyxiation, while a handful of others succumbed to severe burning. You see, even after traveling miles, the volcanic flow could still have been as hot as 680 degrees. Plus, deadly hot ash, gas and debris floated through the air, too.
Meanwhile, Mount St. Helens’ lateral blast also caused major damage to the area’s timber and logging resources. The eruption either totally or partially destroyed more than 4 billion board feet of timber, in fact. Plus, layers where ash had fallen heavily saw farmers’ crops ruined, including apples, alfalfa and potatoes.
However, it’s not just humans whose lives were devastated by Mount St. Helens’ eruption; many animals also fell victim to the disaster. Estimates tally that 5,000 deer died, for instance, as well as 1,500 elk. Underwater ecosystems faced startling damage, too. In fact, approximately 12 million salmon fingerlings perished after the volcanic eruption destroyed their hatcheries. Mount St. Helens itself, meanwhile, didn’t come away unscathed, either, losing 1,300 feet in height as a result of the blast.
Of course, all of this damage required a massive clean-up and rebuilding effort in Mount St. Helens’ surrounding areas – as well as those far-flung places that were affected by the ash cloud. In Yakima, for instance, it took ten weeks and $2.2 million to get rid of the thick layer of char that had blanketed the city.
On top of that, lingering ash forced airlines to cancel flights in the days and weeks following the catastrophe. Black dust found its way into mechanical and electrical equipment, too, causing it to function improperly. Plus, ash got into electrical transformers, which sparked blackouts in the midst of the post-eruption chaos.
In total, the cost of this major natural disaster tallied $1.1 billion. Congress also handed over an additional $951 million in disaster relief, much of which went to agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And although residents experienced a spike in unemployment post-eruption, many individuals found replacement work in timber salvaging and ash removal.
Consequently, many Mount St. Helens residents remained in the area after the disaster. The eruption did cause changes to tourists’ plans to frequent the area, however, with vacations to both Washington and Oregon waning after the blast. But visitor numbers eventually spiked again – and for a pretty surprising reason.
You see, it seems as though tourists returned to Mount St. Helens thanks to a morbid fascination with the devastating event that had initially kept them away. After the 1980 eruption, the volcanic activity didn’t stop – and people came from far and wide to watch it. In July of that year, for instance, a 10-mile ash cloud rose into the air, and several explosions occurred. A growing dome on the stratovolcano disappeared in the blast, too, and multiple eruptions occurred through 1991.
Between 2004 and 2008, Mount St. Helens reawakened once again. First, another lava dome started to form on the volcano, but it never grew higher than the caldera left behind by the 1980 blast. And while Mount St. Helens has remained relatively quiet since then, experts believe that the volcano will spill its fiery guts again.
The USGS has monitored Mount St. Helens since the 1980 eruption, and, as of 2017, geologist Liz Westby told ABC that the volcano “[was] at normal background levels of activity.” But more than 100 rumbling earthquakes between April and May of 2017 prove that area is still very much active – and that Mount St. Helens could very well strike again soon.