2000: The day the impossible happened

May 12, 2010 

Back in the spring of 1980, few people believed Mount St. Helens really would erupt.

The idea that an entire mountain could explode seemed too far-fetched to take seriously.

The U.S. Geological Survey was issuing warnings, but there was a credibility gap. Five years earlier, geologists had predicted Mount Baker was going to erupt, too, and that had come to nothing more than a fizzle of steam and hydrogen sulfide gas.

The biggest skeptic of all, 83-year-old Harry Truman, refused to leave his home at the foot of Mount St. Helens.

"That mountain will never hurt me," Truman said. "When you live someplace for 50 years, you either know your country or you're stupid."

But at 8:32 Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, the symmetrical peak,

so beautiful it had been compared to Mount Fuji, let loose with an explosion heard all the way to Saskatchewan.

The volcano roared to life, killing Truman and at least 56 other people, blasting 234 square miles of forest into smithereens and sending up a column of ash that blanketed five states and circled the world.

Now, just 20 years later, the eruption once again seems hardly possible. Aided by the return of plants, the volcano's dangerous nature has been disguised; its deadly history is quickly being forgotten.

"People have short memories," said Van Youngquist, a Cowlitz County dairy farmer who was a county commissioner at the time of the eruption. "They forget ash falls and mudflows."

Youngquist still does consulting work for the county and says he increasingly finds himself at meetings with people too young to know what went on in 1980.

"I'll look around the table and realize that not one of these people has any idea what happened," he said. "A good many of these kids weren't even born then. They don't understand what people went through."

As St. Helens slips from our collective memory, some worry that the sense of caution is slipping away, too. There are 11 active volcanoes in the Cascade Range - including Mount Rainier - and geologists say any one of them is capable of erupting at any time.

Pat Pringle, a volcano geologist with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, also works on disaster management plans. He says the mudflow from Mount St. Helens, which wiped out eight bridges and destroyed 200 homes, was nothing out of the ordinary for Cascade Range volcanoes.

A mudflow from Mount Rainier could be much worse, he said. And now that Western Washington is more heavily populated, the chance of loss of life is proportionately greater.

There is no question the volcanoes will erupt again, scientists say. The only question is when.

Memorial events today

This week, 20 years after Mount St. Helens' disastrous eruption, scientists, law enforcement officials and survivors are gathering for a variety of commemorative events.

Families who owned cabins or businesses on the old Spirit Lake, are holding a reunion today along what's now called "Spirit Lake Memorial Highway" - the road that used to lead to their property.

And at the Silver Lake Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, near Castle Rock, geologists and rescuers, along with sightseers, backpackers and loggers who were trapped in the blast zone in 1980, are presenting talks on their experiences.

Those who have been away for a while will find the area transformed. Time has smoothed the volcano's rough edges.

Mudflows that so recently looked like the surface of Mars are now groves of tightly packed alder and cottonwood trees.

The gray desert of the blast zone has become a mosaic of young forests interspersed with meadows. Killdeer and red-winged blackbirds dart over fields lit by a kaleidoscope of flowers.

Except for the area closest to the crater, it takes an educated eye to tell the eruption occurred at all.

The landscape changed so fast that a conservative Christian organization called The Mount St. Helens Creation Information Center has set up shop along the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, declaring the rapid change is proof the Bible is right: the Earth may be only thousands of years old rather than billions.

After the eruption, the federal government insisted that Cowlitz County forbid building on land threatened by mudflows from St. Helens. But the building moratorium has since been lifted following the construction of a debris dam by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

The Toutle River valley has turned into one of the hottest development areas in Southwest Washington. Affluent young families with jobs as far away as Portland and Olympia have colonized the area, looking for rural solitude within commuting distance.

The corridor bristles with signs advertising housing developments and real estate for sale.

Inside one of the new homes, a young carpenter putting the final touches on trim work and cabinets scoffs at the idea that people who wind up living in the house might be in danger.

"It would never reach here," he said. "They might get a little ash, but that's about it."

Not a single person who has looked at the house has expressed concern about living next to a volcano, he said. "If it did go off," he laughed, "think of what a great view they'd have."

Front-row view of destruction

Youngquist's dairy farm sits along the Columbia River, where he's lived since 1965. On clear days, you can see Mount St. Helens from his front yard, 35 miles away.

He took office as a county commissioner just as Mount St. Helens was shooting off its first warning blasts in 1980. The Sunday the mountain exploded, he remembers, he had just finishing his morning chores and was walking toward the house. He looked up and saw the eruption plume filling the sky.

Youngquist spent the rest of that day in the county's emergency response room, and the following morning he was in a National Guard helicopter flying over the blast zone. It was a surreal trip. Homes and farms 40 miles from the volcano were buried in mud. The ground was so changed, he couldn't even recognize where he was.

As it turned out, the red danger zone, established by Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, had not begun to contain the damage. The force of the sustained explosion was equivalent to 500 atomic bombs the size of the one that leveled Hiroshima. It scoured all life from the north side of the mountain and blew down trees as far as 17 miles away.

In addition to the 57 people who died, hundreds more were trapped in the blast zone. If the eruption had not taken place early Sunday morning, the death count undoubtedly would have been higher. The Weyerhaeuser Co. had 330 people working in the area on weekdays.

These memories are still fresh in Youngquist's mind.

"I don't look at it as a threat day-to-day," Youngquist said. "But you have to be aware of the fact that this thing could wake up again."

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SIDEBAR: Mount St. Helens: 20 years later

Today: No one believed the mountain would erupt. Has time dulled our fear of the power of volcanoes?

Monday: Mount St. Helens has provided scientists with an invaluable research site.

Tuesday: Volcano tourism is now a multi-million-dollar industry that attracts more visitors than Mount Rainier National Park.

- - -

SIDEBAR: Amazing numbers

The eruption

5

St. Helens' rank among Washington's tallest peaks before the eruption.

30

Rank after the eruption.

57

Number of people killed in the eruption.

30

Number of bodies recovered.

234

Square miles of forest destroyed in the eruption

300,000

Number of houses that could have been built from trees blown down.

154,000,000

Cubic yards of volcanic mud dredged from rivers.

2,400,000,000

Cubic yards of ash in the ash plume.

16

Distance in miles the ash plume rose above Earth.

690

Miles to farthest point where people reported hearing the eruption.

480

Air temperature in degrees Fahrenheit at the leading edge of the blast

50

Top speed of mudflows in miles per hour.

500

Equivalent of eruption in Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

100,000

Tons of ash removed from Spokane International Airport.

- - -

Originally published on May 14, 2000.

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