Documenting Demise

As we explored in the previous issue, Mt. St. Helens began to display activity in March 1980, a string of action that led to the largest recorded landslide and an incomprehensible lateral blast on May 18. This two-month period allowed geologists and amateur scientists time to study the mountain in the buildup. Many volcanologists felt they were on the precipice of witnessing and documenting a once-in-a-lifetime event.

They were right.

Despite the nagging concerns of some geologists, many scientists thought the outposts they had set up were within a safe zone. Either way, they knew they were in potential danger, as they monitored the peak and its bulging dome in the days leading up to the eruption. David Johnston, who radioed the famous “Vancouver!” transmission, researched the activity in incredible fashion. The photos below are from April and May 1980.

Johnston goes into the Mt. St. Helens crater to sample the lake, April 30, 1980 - USGS photo by R.P. Hoblitt
Johnston sampling the lake
Johnston climbing on the bulge of St. Helens to sample gases from fumaroles, the day before the explosion! see the next photo for scale - USGS photo from a helicopter
View from helicopter of David Johnston near crest of the bulge on the north side of Mount St. Helens, May 17, 1980

The dedication and danger to monitor the volcano in this way seem unreal to me. But Johnston was not a thrill seeker. He helped prevent many people from being near the mountain in the run-up to the explosion and helped resist pressure to re-open the area during the activity. He even saved the life of geologist Carolyn Driedger, with whom he ascended the mountain on patrol the day before eruption. She wanted to camp on one of the ridges the night before, but Johnston convinced her to leave, saying it was too dangerous. Johnston, himself, had only hesitantly accepted the overnight post for one day, filling in for another geologist with a scheduling conflict. He told reporters the mountain was like “standing next to a dynamite keg and the fuse is lit.” He knew the dangers but felt scientists must do what is necessary to help protect the public from disasters, so he took the risk of on-site monitoring.

When the earthquake hit on the morning of May 18, he was approximately six miles away. He made the radio transmission to USGS headquarters in Vancouver, Washington.

“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

Johnston at the Coldwater II Outpost 13 and a half hours before the eruption of Mt. St. Helens

Gerry Martin, a ham radio operator who was part of a network of volunteers monitoring St. Helens for Washington’s emergency management agency, was stationed eight miles from the summit. He could see Johnston’s post, two miles distant. 

“Now we’ve got an eruption down here,” Martin reported. “And now we’ve got a big slide coming down. The whole … northwest side is sliding down. And it’s coming over the ridge toward me.” At first, his voice was incredibly calm, then grew more and more anxious. He looked toward Johnston’s location. “The camper and the car that’s just south of me is covered. It’s going to get me, too,” he said.

A full recording of Martin’s broadcast is available in the Further Reading section below. Imagine the scale of talking for minutes and seeing your death rushing to you from eight miles away. So far away, yet inevitable.

Both men paid the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of helping the public.

Photographer Reid Blackburn was overrun by ash as he attempted to flee in his car

Scientists and emergency operators weren’t the only people on the mountain that day. Several photographers were also working when the eruption occurred. 

National Geographic and United States Geological Survey photographer Reid Blackburn was there on May 18. Mt. St. Helens was his favorite crag. He referred to it as “the Sleeping Beauty of the Northwest.” His assignment ended on May 17, but he opted to stay a few more days. On the fateful morning, he was about eight miles from the peak. The famous photograph of a car covered in ash was the final resting spot of Blackburn, who had attempted to outrun the pyroclastic flow.

His camera was found buried in the ash. Unfortunately, the film was not salvageable, as the negatives were corrupted by the flow’s heat.

Reid Blackburn's photo log book shows he had taken five shots that morning, four of them during the eruption. Photo credit: The Columbian

These individual stories all emerged in research to me after I discovered the tale of Robert Landsburg, which immediately fascinated me and, I sense, will remain of one of the tales I feel internally for the rest of my sentience.

Landsburg, a photographer from Portland, considered the eruption the event of a lifetime, according to National Geographic. In the preceding months, he had made over a dozen trips to Mt. St. Helens to photograph the situation. On the morning of May 18, he was again on the slopes of the volcano.

When the mountain exploded, his camera was already mounted on a tripod. Four miles from the summit, the ash cloud appeared suddenly. Landsburg feverishly pressed the magic button on his camera. Looking toward the onrushing doom, Landsburg must have known he had no chance.

He quickly rewound the film in the camera, protecting the negatives, took the instrument off the tripod, and stuffed it into his backpack. He had the prescience to stow his wallet in the pack next to the camera, aiding in potential identification. Despite knowing his fate, Landsburg’s flight reaction must have kicked in and he turned to run from the eruption.

As the end approached, he grabbed his backpack and put it on the ground. On top of the pack, he placed his body. He would do all he could to make sure something survived the blast.

Seventeen days later, rescue workers found Landsburg’s body. Miraculously, the backpack was intact, spared from the heat that had destroyed Blackburn’s camera.

Technicians successfully developed the film. The images are extraordinary, unique, and haunting. They are not clear or perfect. They survive distorted, but gorgeous, thanks to Landsburg’s final act.

I can’t describe it any better, so I’ll just quote the National Geographic article’s closing: “his body was found in the ash, together with the film that he bought with his life. It contained not only telling images of the killing edge of the blast but also the scratches, bubbles, warpings, and light leaks caused by heat and ash, the very thumbprint of holocaust.”

The fear this man must have experienced. Yet to have the composure to document and do everything one can to protect the evidence of this world-altering event. These artifacts are priceless; they document the “very thumbprint of holocaust.” It’s a scene and an act I will recall vividly.

Further Reading and Exploration

The Legacy of David A. Johnston – USGS

Guides to Some Volcanic Terranes in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Northern California – by David Johnston and Julie Donnelly-Nolan

Gerry Martin’s ham radio reporting – Youtube recording

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