Special Reports

2005: A day remembered with awe

MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT - Hundreds of tourists, foresters and government dignitaries reflected with humility and awe Wednesday on the 25th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, a blast that devastated the landscape, killed 57 people and turned day to night across Eastern Washington.

"We commemorate the 25th anniversary of an act of God, and we remember those who died," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told visitors who gathered at Weyerhaeuser Co.'s Forest Learning Center near the volcano. "It seems to me this calls for a certain amount of humility, so let us commit to one another that we will wisely use this hard-won 25 years of insight to guide our future efforts to manage our natural resources."

Clouds obscured the horseshoe-shaped crater left by the May 18, 1980, eruption, which blew off the cone-shaped mountain's top 1,300 feet, spawned mudflows that choked the Columbia River's shipping channel, leveled hundreds of square miles of forest, and paralyzed towns and cities more than 250 miles to the east with volcanic ash. The plume of ash that rose from the volcano eventually circled the globe.

Gov. Christine Gregoire recalled that at the time, she was a young lawyer in the state attorney general's office, on vacation with her family and newborn daughter in a rustic cabin near Idaho's Hayden Lake. Without radio or television, their first clue to the eruption was the ash: "It was like a black curtain came down," she told the crowd.

There has been a renewed interest in St. Helens recently, and not just because of the anniversary.

The volcano rumbled to life last fall for the first time since 1986, drawing thousands of visitors who wanted to witness its power. Small earthquakes shook the crater, and clouds of steam escaped thousands of feet into the air as magma moved toward the surface.

The mountain is rebuilding itself, just as plant and animal life have returned to the moonscape left by the 1980 eruption. Inside the crater, a lava dome that grew until 1986 was destroyed by last fall's activity, only to be replaced by one that is 500 feet taller and still growing.

The 25th anniversary was a time for people to remember what they were doing when the volcano blew its top. They regaled each other with stories as they drove the winding road up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, about five miles from the crater. Teachers brought busloads of students to teach them about the volcano.

"We looked at each other and thought it was the Second Coming, to tell you the truth," recalled Craig Reddinger, 48, who was sunbathing with his fiancee in their home town of Richland, Benton County, when the ash cloud blotted out the daylight.

Reddinger made his first trip to the mountain Wednesday with his 21-year-old daughter, Jade.

"Until you see it you can't really imagine how big it really was," Reddinger said.

Pat Murphy and her husband, Dan, residents of nearby Castle Rock, have been to St. Helens at least a dozen times.

"It's still awe-inspiring after all these times we've been up here," Dan said.

For Todd Cullings, assistant director of the Johnston Ridge and Coldwater Ridge observatories, the anniversary was somber. He hiked out to the point where geologist David Johnston was killed after making a legendary radio call to his colleagues - "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" - and observed a private moment of silence.

The ridge now named for Johnston was blasted clean of trees and soil in the eruption.

"I've spent the whole day reflecting on the power of this eruption," Cullings said. "It has opened people's eyes in a way that is really quite unique. You never look at the world the same way again. You can feel small and insignificant just to know the power."

Originally published on May 19, 2005.