Remembering the eruption of Mount Saint Helens

I will never forget the day — in 1980 — when the long dormant volcano blew its top
U.S. Forest Ranger Shannon Holt shows visitors a picture of Mt. St. Helens before the May 18, 1980 eruption as she leads a tour at the Johnson Ridge Overlook in 2005 in the days before the 25th anniversary.

I graduated from the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho on May 17, 1980.  
It was an unusually beautiful spring day in Idaho. My fellow graduates and I donned our caps and gowns, received diplomas at the ASUI Kibbie Dome and posed for photos. That afternoon a group of us danced around my apartment to the song “Do the funky chicken.”  
Life was good! 

After the festivities, my parents and most of my friends left town. I had spent my senior year as editor of the Gem of the Mountain yearbook and needed to remain behind to wrap up some loose ends. I also wanted to attend a fellow photographer’s wedding. 

Dan Farmin, Renee AlLee and myself on graduation day at the University of Idaho May 17, 1980.
A 35th anniversary cover of the Spokesman-Review newspaper.
Dan Farmin, left, Karlen Andersen McBirney and Clay Lyon on graduation day at the University of Idaho..

On the morning of May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State 300 miles west of Moscow. Fifty-seven people were killed — the deadliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history. Over 230-square-miles around the blast zone was devastated and an estimated $1 billion in damage was inflicted on the surrounding community. 
I remember looking out my apartment window that morning to see a gray cloud across the western horizon. The afternoon wedding went off as planned with one big hitch. The skies were almost completely black and ash began to fall during the ceremony.  
Driving back to town was surreal. There was just enough light to see the road, until that is, another car passed. Then ash kicked up by a passing vehicle would create a gray-out, making visibility impossible for several minutes. By early evening the landscape looked like the surface of the Moon. Travel was nearly impossible.  
This was my first experience with a full-on natural disaster. The authorities declared a state of emergency and the the grocery stores were cleared out of supplies. To make the best of things, I stocked up on beer and what other provisions I could buy and hunkered down to mull my next move.  

The next morning, I grabbed my camera and set about making photographs, while laying plans to add four pages to the back of the yearbook. 

A selfie on May 19, 1980 in Moscow, Idaho a day after the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The Palouse region of Washington and Idaho was particularly hard hit. The vagaries of the wind dropped a large portion of the ash on Pullman and Moscow. Locations north and south were not as heavily impacted. I ventured out into my neighborhood and made some photos, but found the streets mostly deserted. I also remember being worried about my own safety while breathing the ash filled air and felt daunted by the challenge of navigating in the lunar landscape by car. I stuck to walking the neighborhood near my home and exposed only three 36-exposure rolls of Tri-X that week. 

I had plenty of excuses — inexperience, safety concerns, travel constraints — but afterward, I was disappointed that I was not more aggressive in documenting the larger context of this once in a life time historical event.  
Then I started hearing stories. 
Chris Anderson, a photographer for The Spokesman-Review, had been dispatched out of Spokane, Wash. to photograph the eruption from an airplane. He was able to capture some amazing photographs of the plume from the windward side of the mountain, but by the time he started back, conditions had worsened. He and his pilot were forced to land in Lewiston, Idaho. He was able to contact the Lewiston Morning Tribune staff, who processed his film and helped him transmit images via the Associated Press wire service.  
More sobering, two photographers, Reid Blackburn and Robert Landsburg, both died that morning while making photographs from vantages near the mountain.  
Before my career even began, I received a very real-world insight into the costs my chosen profession might exact.

Fast forward to 2005

Reporter Greg Bolt and I made a trip to Mount St. Helens for a 25th anniversary story for The Register-Guard. It was a surprisingly emotional trip for me. The view from the Johnson Ridge Overlook is spectacular, but I admit I found the experience unsettling as memories of the deviation — lived and learned — came flooding back.  
Watching USGS Seismologist Seth Moran talk to a colleague on a radio 25 years after the eruption, I could not help but think of geologist David A. Johnston, who was killed that day after calling in the first report of the blast from his vantage 6-miles away.  
His last words were “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” before the pyroclastic flow enveloped him. His body was never recovered.

I hope to make another trip to Mount St. Helens some day. Perhaps to mark the 50th anniversary in 2030?

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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