Memories of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 blast

Originally published May 18, 2010.

On May 18, 1980, the most cataclysmic event in the recorded human history of the Pacific Northwest took place. The Herald asked readers to share their recollections of the day Mount St. Helens exploded, killing 57 people, causing massive damage and generating an ash cloud that traveled around the world in 15 days. Some ventured into the blast zone. Others heard a loud boom, saw the ash cloud or both. Others had ash raining down around them. None of them will ever forget that day.

Vern Hodgson

On Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, Vern Hodgson, a general contractor living in Lynnwood, was on a camping trip with a friend about 11 miles northeast of Mount St. Helens.

He would take a series of photos that would change his life: He captured every step of the volcano’s massive eruption.

It almost did him in.

“I had just set my camera up (on a tripod) and there it went,” he recalls.

He began snapping the shutter furiously, ending up with 16 images in about 45 seconds.

“It was pretty frightening to see the entire horizon disappear in a cloud of smoke in a matter of minutes,” he said.

Hodgson and his friend saw that the ash cloud was coming their way.

“We realized it was time to leave. We had to drive into the ash cloud to get out,” he said. “It covered the window and it was wet and sticky.”

Unfortunately, he had removed the sun roof on his Ford van, so there was no way to stop the ash from coming in.

“Every time you took a breath it would stick to your throat or get stuck in your nose. At that point I started to go into shock,” he said. “You couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We accepted the fact we were going to die.”

Hodgson drove by feeling the dropoff on the side of the road, then crossing back over to the other side and doing the same. He drove very slowly that way for about an hour, he said.

If he was to go over an embankment, he decided, “ ‘What’s the difference, I’m dead already.’ ”

Finally the ash began to thin and visibility slowly returned.

Back in Seattle that afternoon, Hodgson took his film to the Seattle Times. He was asked to drop it off, which he did.

“I was dirty and dusty and tired and strung out,” he said.

When he called the Times the next day, Monday, he was told they were too busy and short-staffed to process the film that evening, so he could come by and pick it up if he wanted to, Hodgson said.

So he did, and took the film to The Herald’s office in Lynnwood. Joanne Byrd, then the city editor at the Lynnwood office, agreed on the spot to run the photos, Hodgson said. He told her his story.

“As fast as I could talk, she would type,” he said. “It allowed The Herald to scoop the world.”

The Herald paid Hodgson $300 to run the photos in Tuesday’s paper, he said. The next day he went to the Associated Press in Seattle, gave them his negatives and was paid $35,000.

“The next few weeks were absolute chaos. I was contacted by people from all over the world,” Hodgson said.

Only one other photographer captured and sold images of the eruption in progress, Hodgson said.

“We competed in the market for quite awhile,” he said.

Hodgson said he went through many hassles regarding use of his photos.

“It was several years of agonizing crap that went on. People who weren’t supposed to be using them, were,” he said.

Hodgson, now 67 and living in Seattle, figures he ultimately made about $150,000 from his experience, he said.

The memory of the morning of May 18 has long outlasted the money.

“Even today it sends chills up my spine and puts goosebumps up my back,” he said. “To see that whole mountain collapse, there’s no words to describe it.”

Michael Lienau, Camano Island

I was 20 years old when Mount St. Helens spewed ash and steam with the velocity of nuclear bombs. I’ve learned some things since that time.

I was drawn to the excitement of something very unusual happening, practically in my own back yard. I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the raw power of nature up close. I had to be there to capture it with my camera. It was exciting and terrifying all at once.

All my life I wanted to make movies. When I was 9 years old, I charged neighborhood kids admission to see my home-made films. By age 13, I had a 16 mm camera and freelanced local and national news footage for TV stations. At 17, I began work as a full-time cameraman for an NBC affiliate. When I turned 19, I started my own film company.

I was waiting for my “big break” when May 18, 1980 came and the world was stunned by the raw power that tore the top off Mount St. Helens. I joined a film crew to capture the first ground level shots of the devastation. Common sense told me not to go — the mountain could erupt again at any moment. But eager for my first big break, I found myself the youngest of a team of five guerilla filmmakers. Ready with my camera, I leapt from a helicopter into a monochromatic wasteland of steaming ash and flattened timbers. I was unprepared for what I encountered.

A three-hour shoot soon became a three-day struggle for survival. We stumbled in hot mushy ash — eventually in circles — our compass rendered useless by magnetism in the ash. Our contour maps also turned meaningless by the blasted terrain and slopes. The struggle to walk out of the devastation now became a death march as we fought fatigue, hunger and growing turmoil within our group.

We were terrified and now hopelessly lost when a second eruption of Mount St. Helens shook the ground. The atmosphere was charged with electricity as 3- to 5-mile-long sheets of lightning lit up the sky with bizarre red, blue and greenish colors more intense than the Northern Lights. Still, it was deathly quiet. This blast rocketed over our heads and was heard by people 200 miles away.

Cold, hungry and injured, we became the news story we had gone in to cover. Unknown to us, we had been declared “missing and presumed dead.” Morale plummeted as we realized we may never escape the graveyard “hell” we were trapped in. Humbled by how helpless I felt, I called out to God in desperation. Broken trees lay scattered around me, one of them making the shape of a cross. Softly, I heard an audible voice, “Michael, look up to your left!” It scared me because no one was near. Minutes later I saw the blades of a rescue helicopter rise over the hill exactly where the voice had told me to look. We were saved! My prayer was answered.

I expect to see another Cascade volcano erupt within my lifetime, and I’ll be ready with my camera, but this time with a long telephoto lens.

Experiencing an erupting volcano up close — too close — was a humbling and life-changing experience for me. I now have a very healthy respect for the raw power that I witnessed.

I was left with haunting questions about what happened, how it happened and why we weren’t better prepared for this disaster. Perhaps the biggest question of all, was could it happen again, and if so, what about the fire below Mount Rainier, which will be much more disastrous — affecting many more people.

Just five years after Mount St. Helens, in 1985, Nevado del Ruiz erupted in Colombia, and its hot volcanic lahar mudflows killed about 23,000 people. My heart went out to the people and imagining the pain and struggle I wanted to help. Ironically, I was assigned by a cable news network to cover the rescue efforts and the aftermath but on my way there a hurricane hit the coast of Florida and my flight was grounded in Miami. Another crew had to fly in from another direction.

These events inspired me to tell the human drama of Mount St. Helens for future generations. I started asking questions and slowly put together my documentary, “The Fire Below Us.” Years later it premiered on National Geographic television and still, all these years later, is on other networks around the world.

Continuing with a fascination with the ongoing geologic drama, I spent the next decade interviewing scientists up and down the west coast, discovering all I could about our West Coast volcanoes. I eventually put together another film, “Fire Mountains of the West, the Cascade Volcanoes.”

Six years later I finished “Cascadia: The Hidden Fire” and released it on PBS stations nationwide. Just two weeks later the 9.2 Sumatra-Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami happened, killing 230,000 people in 14 nations.

People were now asking if this could happen here, and the answer was given in my newly released film. Yes, there is a clear and present danger facing us. Now people were calling me and saying, “What’s the use, we’re all going to die!” That inspired me to look into what was needed to prepare for large-scale catastrophes, and I began researching and interviewing specialists and experts. The result was another documentary program called “Personal Survival Kit.” This DVD, produced with disaster preparedness trainers, gives families and businesses the essentials to prepare for these natural or man-made emergencies here in the Northwest.

Our human nature is such that we forget or don’t think it can happen to us. I hope that what I learned in 1980 and have shared through my films will not be forgotten and that it might inspire others to do what they can to prepare for geologic and other disasters.

The earth is an amazing, beautiful unique planet unlike any other discovered so far in the universe. Without our planet’s fine-tuned global plate tectonic movements, we wouldn’t have oxygen, a stable atmosphere, fertile soil or beautiful mountains, rivers and inland oceans we so enjoy here in the Northwest. It’s the earth doing what it is suppose to do to sustain our lives, and it’s not a disaster until it interrupts human life. It’s a terrible beauty.

John Haberle, Arlington

I was working for the public affairs office for the 124th Army Reserve Corps at Fort Lawton in Seattle. I realized no one was doing publicity on the issue for the National Guard. After several days’ wait, I was able to fly a search and rescue mission with the Washington Air National Guard.

It was decided to fly at a low level to see if any bodies were covered by the ash. We flew up to the lip of the crater which was covered by clouds. We landed, got out of the helicopter and walked around a bit. We sat down in the hot ash to see if we could locate any covered bodies. We found none.

The pilots for the Air National Guard were quite skilled as they had flown earlier missions in recovering some of the bodies of the 57 people who died.

I was able to film much of the ash-covered mountain. We flew around the mountain and found that the back side was in a normal green state.

Ray Hanby, Granite Falls

Menzel Lake Road: sitting on the back porch, putting the work boots on and I hear a distinct blast. I said to myself, why is Vern, my neighbor 40 acres to the south, blasting on Sunday morning?

Melissa McLaughlin, Granite Falls

I was 8 years old when Mount St. Helens erupted. My family and I lived in Bothell at the time and we followed it closely on the news. This is an event that I remember very clearly and will for the rest of my life.

My friends and I were outside playing when we looked between my house and my neighbor’s house and saw a huge mushroom cloud rising into the sky. When we pointed it out to a parent they told us that the news was reporting that Mount St. Helens had just erupted and that must be the ash cloud from it. I ran into the house to tell my mom that we could see St. Helens exploding and she said she knew that, she was watching it on TV. It took me a few minutes to convince her that we could actually see it from our house! The whole neighborhood stood outside for hours watching the cloud rise into the sky and spread out. It was amazing!

About a year later we went camping by the mountain and drove up to it. It was strange driving around the winding road where everything was so green and then turning a corner and it was like you were on the moon; the trees were all blown over and everything was grey. That is another memory I will never forget.

I have since taken my children to the mountain and told them the stories of what I remember. It is something that is important to me and something I want them to always remember as well. I feel that the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens impacted my life as much as 9/11 did. May 18, 1980 is a date that will always hold a special place in my heart.

Joy Johns, Lake Stevens

I had just delivered my third son at Everett General Hospital, and was in the recovery room when my husband and I heard what we thought were sonic booms. Mark left to go home and get our older two sons ready for church. Then a very excited nurse came into my room, saying, “Did you hear those booms? That was Mount St. Helens! Turn on your TV.” It was so memorable that we incorporated the event into Micah’s birth announcement.

Bea Swafford, Everett

I was a senior at Everett High School living in the Bakerview Housing projects. I was eating breakfast and getting ready for the Salvation Army church bus when I heard a tremendous noise. At first I thought someone was driving too fast and missed the turn, running into the end of the building. I ran outside and the street was empty.

My next thought was: The mountain blew! I immediately turned on the TV but there was no breaking news. I tried the radio. In the meantime, the bus was due. I told my stepmom about the noise and my thought of Mount St. Helens exploding, she hadn’t even heard the ruckus I had.

My imagination had always been busy and everyone just thought I was delirious. Later, I could hardly wait to get home and check for any news! I did get to say “I told you so.”

Even though the event brought tragedy, it was still a great moment in my life: My ears witnessed a volcanic explosion.

Pamela Collins, Everett

It was the last day of the weekend before school, time to sleep in and be lazy after a long day of hard Saturday chores. But sleeping in on a Sunday morning didn’t happen for this teenager on May 18, 1980. I was awakened by the loudest boom, to this day, I’ve ever heard. This boom was so loud it broke windows in our town of Oak Harbor.

Fireworks don’t come close to this blast of noise! There’s nothing like it. My mom, sisters and neighbors were awakened as well.

Everyone had the same idea: “something happened on base” (at the Whidbey Naval Air Station). We thought the base had been bombed or a plane crashed. A military friend drove to base to check. We were standing outside looking towards the base.

There was no smoke, fire, sirens, alarms, anything, just dead silence. Finally, we turned on the TV and that’s when we discovered what happened: Mount St. Helens had erupted.

Whidbey Island never saw darkness or ash but that blast, the boom that shocked me from sleep, was a sound I’ll never forget. My daughters love hearing my stories of that day and have camped at Mount St Helens. I have not!

Tom Roe, Everett

May 18, 1980 dawned on our house in Nine Mile Falls Washington (15 miles north of Spokane) as a day full of promise. It was the projected due date of our first child’s birth and some friends had come to celebrate with a barbecue.

As we were cooking the burgers the sky became dark, the birds stopped singing, and the street lights came on.

Instead of the thunderstorm we expected, we were puzzled by the particles that began drifting down on us. The radio said that Mount St. Helens had erupted and that this “stuff” was ash.

Within just a few hours, there were four or more inches of suffocating ash on the ground trapping our friends at our house. Worse, my first-time Dad anxiety was magnified because my wife needed a Cesarean delivery. How could I get her to the hospital 15 miles away if she went into labor?

The radio was full of reports of car engines destroyed by the ash. We all prayed that the baby would be late. And, we were lucky but our journey was not over.

After being marooned for about a week (no labor pains), we were finally able to get out of the house. We decided to go to a local restaurant for dinner, taking my old green Nissan pickup. As we were ordering, a waitress ran past shouting, “Whose green truck is in the parking lot? It’s on fire!”

Sure enough, it was ours.

I ran out to find that some kind soul had already extinguished the engine fire, but it had destroyed the alternator and some wiring. The ash had infiltrated the alternator wiring causing a short circuit that started the fire.

Amazingly, the engine started and ran but it was running only on the battery. We hastily finished our dinner and headed home just as the sun was setting – we made it!

A few hours later, my wife went into labor (who wouldn’t after that?) and we safely drove our other car to the hospital in Spokane. Our daughter Erin was born on May 25, just as the mountain erupted yet again. And 30 years later, our mountain biking, hiking, novel writing, English-teaching daughter is still a big blast!

Erica Job, Everett

At the time of the eruption my parents and I were residing in Shelton.

My father describes it as a loud explosion, and even though they were pretty far away, ash ended up in their back yard! My dad collects everything, he had many glass bottles of the ash. When my twin sister and I were in elementary school we did projects on the mountain and brought the ash.

My parents also told me they had a storage unit in which they kept a lot of the family’s belongings, along with newspapers clippings and more ash. When they decided to move to Everett from Shelton they discovered someone had broken into the storage unit and stole everything. But still to this day my father has a tiny bottle with Mount St. Helen’s ash inside of it, it sits on one of his tables in his model room.


More photos of the eruption and its aftermath.

The Mount St. Helens 30th anniversary site by the Longview Daily News, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 1980 eruption.

Facts about the eruption from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Keep an eye on Mount St. Helens through the Forest Service’s Volcano Cam.

Learn about Glacier Peak, the volcano in our back yard.

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