I was four years old on May 18, 1980. It was a Sunday, and my brother and I were playing in our room that morning. Suddenly, my mom was yelling down the hall at us to stop kicking the walls. Only we weren’t. We had been playing quietly, not arguing or fighting and certainly not kicking walls. What was going on?
It wasn’t until later that we learned that Mount St. Helens had erupted at 8:32 that morning. It was the most significant eruption in the United States since the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California. And it was only a few hours away from us. A 5.1 magnitude earthquake created by the rumblings under the mountain triggered a huge landslide that morning. Most of the north face of the mountain slid; it was the largest landslide ever recorded.
The landslide filled the valley with earth, water and trees that had been flattened by the impact. It moved at speeds between 110 and 155 miles per hour. When the landslide stopped, the debris had moved 13 miles down the North Fork Toutle River; the debris reached heights of 600 feet tall covering an area of about 24 square miles.
The landslide triggered a volcanic eruption within a few seconds of the landslide; volcanic gases, pumice, and ash exploded through the landslide, and the blast knocked down all the trees nearby. Over 230 square miles of trees were simply laid flat by the heat and force of the eruption; many more trees further away were killed because of the heat but remained standing.
A second explosion occurred when the superheated eruption material turned all of the water in Spirit Lake and the North Fork Toutle River to steam. That explosion had a “quiet zone” immediately surrounding the mountain where the explosion was not heard. However, areas further away were not within the quiet zone; the second explosion was heard as far away as British Columbia, Canada, Idaho and Northern California. That was the explosion that my mother heard and felt that morning.
By the time the mountain was finished that day, the column of smoke and ash reached 80,000 feet into the air and deposited ash in 11 states. Day became night in cities along the path due to the falling ash; cities were covered with anywhere between 0.5 inches in Spokane to 5 inches of ash in Yakima, Washington.
The immediate area had been closed off for several weeks before the eruption due to increasing earthquake and eruption activity on the mountain. But even still, 57 people lost their lives, including a volcanologist named David Johnston, who was working for the US Geological Survey. Others killed included Harry R. Truman, a lodge owner, Reid Blackburn, a photographer from National Geographic, and others who either lived or were camping or hiking in the area. Most of the people who died that day died of asphyxiation, although several died of burns. Several bodies were never found.
It wasn’t just people who died that day; researchers estimate that up to 7,000 elk, deer and bear were also killed, along with countless smaller mammals. Bird populations were devastated. Over 12 million young salmon were killed when hatcheries in the area were destroyed. Yet remarkably, some burrowing rodents, frogs and salamanders managed to survive because they were burrowed underground when the eruption occurred.
And the trees? In all 4,000,000,000 board feet of timber was destroyed. That’s enough to build 300,000 homes. About 25% of the flattened trees were salvaged beginning that fall, but the majority were not harvested. Additionally, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad track and 185 miles of highways were wiped out. Massive devastation.
After the blast, the area was acquired by the federal government and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was born. Areas not under federal control (most were owned by Weyerhauser) were replanted soon after the eruption, but the lands of the new monument were left as is; allowed to recover naturally.
When you visit now, 34 years later, there are signs of rebirth. Meadows and shrubs have grown, and elk and larger mammals move through the area once again. But you can still see the absolute devastation caused by the eruption. You can see thousands of trees, lying flat along the hillside, remaining where they were blown down all those years ago. And you can clearly see where the landslide raged through and covered the valley, leaving ugly scars and trails of earth and mud.
And my brother and I? Well, my mom apologized later that day for getting mad at us when she saw the news and realized what had happened. You really can’t blame her; after all, her conclusion seemed more likely than a mountain exploding.
We visited in June of this year, and were fascinated to see the changes that are occurring on this once beautiful, then absolutely barren landscape. I’ll post about our visit next.
Do you remember where you were when Mount St. Helens erupted? Were you close enough to feel it?